The role of fathers is still one of the topics that doesn't get enough attention paid to it. It must still be a questionable one because my own unusual experience is such that I still feel the need to apologize for it.
After my wife died in 1994 (a four-year battle with cancer bravely fought) the care and control of our five-year-old son fell to me.
Frankly, I didn't know whether I'd be allowed to keep him.
The idea of a man bringing up a young child was alien to the spirit of the age. Then my other son from a previous marriage came to live with us and we were three males in the one house.
While we were men trying to raise and comfort each other without viable female influences that doesn't mean that our set-up was misogynistic. We were just trying to get through the day.
And each day could have been filmed for a sitcom. It was like an experiment in a satellite. Was it a success? It's a brave parent who claims success. It had its merits. It had its casualties. It was a journey. That's what Scott Hicks' film based on my memoir The Boys Are Back (playing now in select cities) puts into the public domain so well. That's the problem -- or the story -- he explores.
Three males together. It's true we put ourselves into a zone where the maternal influence was conspicuously absent. But what can you do? How does a father pretend to be a mother?
I used to let Alexander drive the last leg of the journey home from town.
He was six, sitting on my lap steering the car down a dusty gravel side road. We used to get up to 25 miles an hour. Only once did I have to correct the wheel. Would his mother have allowed it? As a matter of fact I think she would (she was a country girl).
Here he is again in the bathroom of a motel, leaping from the windowsill into the brimming tub. Great shoots of water leap up round the room as he bombs. I can still see the expression on his face as he lands. Would his mother have allowed that? Hmmm, that's unlikely. Even though bathrooms are built to be wet? Even though it was a motel, and couldn't get any wetter?
No, it's unlikely.
One winter evening in our house I looked around and noted a game of football at one end of the hall, a game of cricket at the other end, a shrieking round of Twister in the sitting room and my older son making graceful arcs, rollerblading in the kitchen. The tree house was now in the house. Would his mother have allowed that? That's going too far. No, far too far.
I had tried to run the house responsibly. Bed times. Meal times. Laundry systems. But that approach requires rules, many, many rules. The more rules you have the more infractions you create. It took much more effort, persistence -- nagging if you will -- to get acquiescence. And how were we to know it was worth it?
I knew we were on the wrong path when I told young Alexander to eat his greens and he used an exasperated sing-song to say: "I have to eat my greens! I have to go to the loo! I have to put my pajamas on! I have to do everything 'round here!" He was beaming back at me what I was becoming.
That was a decisive moment for the "Just Say Yes" strategy. Young children in their natural state can be such a nuisance because everything they want to do is outside the norm. Many of the reasons we come up with for -- say -- riding their bikes in the house are spurious. The way of saying No becomes a habit.
My plan to say Yes wherever possible wasn't a systematic strategy of child development, but a way of bringing them up in a way that I wasn't constantly on their tails. I didn't have the heart to chase them to do things I had no real appetite to get done. There were rules, but not many. Bigger rules but fewer of them (not interrupting adults, that was very important, as I remember). And doing what they were told, that was crucial. But because I told them to do less than half of what two parents would tell them it was a good deal. For years, that is.
But nothing lasts. Growing up is never easy, young men are difficult. And we are left with the parents' eternal defense, "I did the best I could." But they're fine. Nobody's eye got put out. They're at college. We still live at home together. We made it. The odds, like life, were 6-4 against, but we made it.
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