Volume 12 Number 4
The Sixty Minute Man
01 August 1999

In 1988 Rob Parsons gave up his job as a lawyer to help bolster Britain's ailing family life. The founder of Care for the Family talks to Kenneth Noble.

Teacher, lawyer, public speaker, Christian leader, writer. Is there anything Rob Parsons cannot do? Perhaps, like many successful people, he has serious marital problems? Seemingly no chinks in the armour here. He and his wife Dianne have just returned from a six-city tour of Canada, running courses on how to make marriage work.

So it is perhaps encouraging to learn that one of Rob Parsons' most successful books, The sixty minute father*, was written out of a sense of failure 'in being just too busy for my own kids'.

A glance at Parsons' CV reveals why he was so busy. Born in 1948, he was brought up in 'quite a poor home' in Cardiff with no hot water or inside toilet. His father was a postman, his mother an office cleaner. His parents were not church-goers but sent the four-year-old Rob to Sunday school, a lasting influence on his life. Eventually he qualified as a teacher. Just before going for his first job interview, someone said to him, 'Why don't you work as a lawyer?'

'I've only just qualified as a teacher.'

'I think you'd be a good lawyer.'

Parsons went ahead with his probationary year as a teacher 'and loved it. In fact they offered me a permanent job. But I thought I would try law.'

He retrained and 'began all over again on £4 per week and a car allowance'. In 1976 he qualified as a solicitor. By this time he was married to Dianne whom he had met at church when they were about 16.

In 1980 Parsons co-founded Lawyers Planning Services, a consultancy to the legal profession on practice management. He still lectures regularly to the business sector and his seminars have been attended by tens of thousands of lawyers.

Rob and Dianne Parsons began doing counselling work in the mid-Seventies, and they were also part of a Christian leadership team on a housing estate of 20,000 people in Cardiff. These activities and his legal work opened his eyes to the difficulties that many married couples were going through. So in 1988 Rob came out of legal practice to start Care for the Family as a department of Christian Action, Research and Education (CARE) Trust, a charity of which he was a board member.

It was a dramatic change of lifestyle for Rob: 'Not least the day-to-day operation. I was a senior partner of a big provincial law practice with people all round. If you wanted a cup of coffee it magically appeared. The next day I was in a one-room garret licking my own stamps. No one returned my phone calls because no one knew me or cared whether they did or not.'

That changed. Today Care for the Family's office in Cardiff has 50 staff plus volunteers. It has become independent from CARE. Apart from producing films and books, Care for the Family organizes seminars, counselling and a confidential line for church leaders. Seminar titles have included: 'Marriage matters', 'Beating burnout' and 'Life behind the mask'. 'Developing closeness in marriage' workshops are helping couples with their communication skills.

Britain has the highest divorce rate in Europe and Care for the Family has been involved in advising both the Government and the Conservative Party on family issues. Parsons believes that marriage could become stronger in the longer term. 'In the media, people are beginning to realize the importance of marriage and a stable family life. Certainly the Government are realizing that break-up of family life has enormous social and economic costs.' Societies tend to do what is pragmatic.

People find it difficult to be as committed as they need to be, especially where children are involved. 'In previous generations people would say, "We'll stay together for the sake of the kids." You tend not to hear that now--though I think it's still a very good reason.' He's seen 'countless' marriages where the partners have done that and 'in that process of loving as an act of the will' have found emotional love again.

What of the argument that it is better for children if their parents divorce rather than row constantly?

He maintains that kids generally do better in a home with conflict than they do after their parents separate. 'And of course the idea that divorce ends conflict is a nonsense. Most kids still see their parents involved in conflict over access or maintenance. The idea that life becomes all sweet for kids after divorce is a massive illusion.'

Rob Parsons' books are racy, down-to-earth and laced with anecdotes, pithy sayings and parables. You can almost hear the articulate, convincing tone in which he speaks. The sixty minute father--designed to be read in an hour by busy fathers--reached number three on The Times Bookwatch best-seller list. The sixty minute marriage is similar in style. His books have sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide. All royalties go to help people in need.

What they didn't teach me in Sunday school, published in 1997, is Parsons' personal credo. Unlike the sixty minute books which are written in non-religious language this one takes you into his own life and beliefs and the 'lessons I wish I'd learnt earlier'. He describes movingly his feeling of helplessness during a period when Dianne was suffering from depression, and how this brought him to a new understanding of Christ's words, 'Without me you can do nothing.' And many would identify with his struggle to forgive someone who had hurt him badly. Not surprisingly, the theme of over-busyness is prominent.

He sees 'the sheer busyness of life' as one of the main threats to parent-child and marriage relationships. One of his most-used phrases is 'the driven life' which, he says, 'tends to know no satisfaction. We're always on to the next thing, we're always saying a slower day is coming. But of course it doesn't until we're 60 or 65 and someone hands us a clock and says they'll miss us.'

The driven person has a great sense of the brevity of life; and often incredibly low self-esteem, says Parsons. They are often dominated by the desire to prove themselves so they end up saying 'yes' to everyone: 'Of course, I'll sit on that board, of course I'll write that article.' They can end up saying 'no' to those for whom they have primary responsibility. Because kids are an easy touch for 'I'll do it later'.

So how do you avoid getting over-busy?

'The basic ingredient is to realize that we don't have to prove ourselves to the whole world.' In his own case, he realized how fast the door of childhood was closing with his kids. 'If I didn't do something about it soon they wouldn't want to go fishing with me.'

He quotes: 'We're so busy trying to give our children what we didn't have that we forget to give them what we did have.' And adds: 'I began to realize that the simple things: the games, the garden, sleeping in a tent, the water fights were providing far more fulfilling memories for them than expensive toys.'

One of Parsons' most quoted phrases (coined by American lawyer Vincent Foster) sums up his argument: 'No one was ever heard to say on their deathbed, "I wish I had spent more time at the office."'

What of his latest book, What every kid wished their parents knew and vice versa? It started when Rob and his 17-year-old son Lloyd began to 'brainstorm'. Lloyd said, 'It's amazing. Parents spend the first 10 years of a kid's life trying to get him into bed and the next 10 years trying to get him out of bed.' They began to produce lists--things that you wish your teenager would say ('No, midnight is far too late, I'll come in at 10.30.'); and silly things parents say ('Don't come running to me if you break your leg.'). They asked children what they wanted to say to their parents, and parents what they wanted to say to their children. 'And we just came out with this fun book. It's got some poignant moments in it: reactions from friends of a guy who took his life; and kids talking about drugs and sex.'

I am left with the feeling that few people make such good use of 60 minutes as Rob Parsons.

*Rob Parsons' books are published by Hodder and Stoughton
Kenneth Noble

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