'No mums and no screens': this is what really happens at Dads and Kids camp

Dinner at the pub. Supplied
Dinner at the pub. Supplied  

It's an unusual experience to find yourself caught in a culture of competitive incompetence, without even having to get elected to Federal parliament. 

There is simply no other way to describe the kind of brash bumbling that goes on when you assemble a dozen fathers and twice as many young children for the very modern parenting phenomenon that is a Dads and Kids Camp.

I was invited into my local chapter, which has been running for seven years and operates under the admirably simple premise of having only two rules: 

Stephen Corby's daughter, Emma age 8, at the campsite.
Stephen Corby's daughter, Emma age 8, at the campsite. 

1. No Mums: not even surprise drop-ins with medical supplies and

2. No Screens: implemented by a neighbour. What immediately struck me about the idea was how unfeasible it would have been for my father's, or grandfather's generation.

Sure, some blokes back then might have taken their sons away to kill small animals, or asphyxiate fish, and engage in long silences somewhere remote, but the idea of taking full responsibility for the caring, feeding and minding of a large number of loud and demanding children, most of them under the age of 10 and predominantly female, would have been as likely as them signing up for yoga.

Or back waxing.

While the modern father actively seeks out this kind of bonding time, there is plenty of old-school ineptitude still on display. The food on these camps is, as you might expect, low on health value and high in things like tomato sauce, Froot Loops and marshmallows. 

At least one dinner over the weekend will be catered for by the nearest pub/bowling club and on at least one occasion a Dad will laughingly wave a bag of salad leaves in the air, unopened, and make a joke along the lines of "well, we can tell the wives we tried!"

Without the aid of more organised human beings, "planning" is also in short supply, so even the traditional sausages-on-bread feast can run short of little details, like sausages, but this only allows someone to make a dash to the nearest shop to bring back more coffees and ice. Beer is something that never runs short, strangely.

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As you might also expect, washing and tidying up are generally frowned upon and after the first 24 hours or so the camp site looks like the aftermath of a small hurricane in a super market.

Man's innate need to compete with his fellow man is somewhat scuppered when it comes to parenting, because it takes years to actually measure whether you're winning or not, so instead, a kind of non-parenting contest breaks out. 

Pretending that you're not bothered about where your children are is considered de rigueur - "No, I've not seen them for an hour! Where shall we look first, the river or the ocean?" (the latest event was held in Patonga, on a campsite excitingly surrounded by waterways). 

Supplied
Supplied 

Stories of previous incompetence and malfeasance - like the time two of the dads broke someone else's daughter's arm, or the near-drowning of one of the fathers, as he attempted to save a young boy from going under for the third time - are shared with relish. 

You are also more likely to see one of the blokes hanging his son over a sea wall by one leg than you are to see the two embracing. Public displays of affection are not openly banned, as such, they are just subtly absent.

Fathers, at least in this setting, far from the watchful eyes of their partners, are not so much helicopter parents as lightly disinterested drones, or perhaps geostationary satellites.

Supplied
Supplied 

There are still some educational moments, however, like when I heard a group of children asking each other: "How do the Dads drink that many beers? Let's try and count them all!"

What is not in doubt is that, almost despite themselves, these camping trips are hugely enjoyable, possibly more for the children, who clearly thrive, aside from the odd broken limb, when being largely left to themselves in an environment far from shopping centres and televisions.

The whole thing also seems remarkably low stress for the dads, too. Bumbling incompetency seems to come very naturally to most of us.