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At Dad Camp, guys 'man up' or get the boot

In one corner: six reluctant, badass fathers-to-be in their 20s. In the other: New York psychologist and family therapist Jeff Gardere ("Dr. Jeff"), whose job is to transform them into grown-ups ready to face fatherhood. They meet on Dad Camp, one of the latest offerings from the parenting wing of the reality-TV genre, airing for the first time in Canada.

At the end of the 30-day boot camp, in which Dr. Jeff covers everything from how to stop cheating to how to diaper a baby, the six pregnant girlfriends will decide whether they should stay with their mates or jettison them.

The six guys here look like a pretty tough crowd. They cheat on their girlfriends, they drink too much and smoke pot. Are they extreme cases?

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They're not really atypical of a lot of young men that I see who are in unstable and not-well-thought-out relationships. One of the guys, it was the first time he'd gotten with this girl that he got her pregnant. They didn't even fall in love. These guys are still parading around ... partying like it's 1999. They've got a pregnant girlfriend, and instead of preparing for fatherhood they're still hanging out at bars every night, whoring around. They're smoking cigarettes around pregnant moms. This puts them on a very uneven road toward being a good father.

There's one guy with "deadbeat" tattooed across his knuckles.

That's Elliott. He has real anger issues. A lot of people think he has "deadbeat" written on his knuckles because that's what he strives to be. The true reason is because that's exactly what his father was, and it's exactly what he doesn't want to be. It's a generational curse.

In the first episode you're macho, not touchy-feely. You tell them to "man up."

They've reached the end of the line. The babies are on the way. Time is limited. It's like being in the battlefield of life. You better strap on your boots and get into action right now. If you're trying to punk out you can get out now, because I don't have any use for you and neither do your women. Or you can stay and do the hardest job you've done in your life.

So, what's the plan?

First, getting them to understand that they are in denial with regard to their behaviour. Second, to get them to understand that it comes from something much deeper, and complex, and that they were traumatized by poor parenting growing up. And to get them to begin to learn the practical skills and tools to being a father. The purpose of the show is not to get them to marry these girls, but to get them to be better partners.

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The odds don't look very good.

At the beginning, because these girls have reached the end of their ropes, we thought many of the guys would get the boot. But actually almost all of the guys make it to the end of the show. Not everyone makes it.

I'm not surprised. The first night, you film them at a guys' night out together. They flirted and kissed other women in a bar even though they knew it would be taped.

They're hamming it up for the cameras. "I'm so big and bad. I'll do this right in front of the camera and, What? What have you got to say about it?" They think they're going to become reality stars. And they don't realize that the reality is that they're looking like complete and total jerks. When I sit them down and show them how they misbehaved, the light goes off for these guys. That's a breakthrough moment. I mush them in the face with their behaviour.

Are they all children of divorce?

Except for Wes. Like a lot of fathers, his was there but he wasn't there. Old-fashioned dads: "You know that I love you because all I do is work and you have the best of everything." He confronts his father and says: "Thank you, but I want more and I need more for my child."

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It's really touching. And it shows that as much as we think we're the best fathers, we can point fingers and say, "Look at that deadbeat dad." Even those of us in stable relationships with our kids can step up our game.

Is Dad Camp also a cautionary tale for young women?

We preach this to our kids all the time: Try not to get involved in random or promiscuous sex. Spend time with someone before you make a commitment. Especially about having a baby. Try to get your education before you start having children. These are all the things I've tried to communicate to my kids.

How old are your kids?

They're 18, 17, 7 and 8. Two boys. Two girls. I'm a single father now. I have joint custody with my soon-to-be ex-wife. It's a very amicable divorce, by the way. Though I sat on a lot of stuff I wanted to say. But if you're Dr. Jeff, you have to not only talk the talk but walk the walk.

So when you said goodbye to these couples at the end of the show, what was it like?

It was very bittersweet. ... They continued to call me three or four times a week. I still work with them, e-mail with them and get baby pictures. I couldn't just treat them like a commodity.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dad Camp airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on Twist TV.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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