More About Fathers

It is pretty clear that these days fathers are more involved in the care of their children than was the custom a generation or more ago.  In fact, more fathers than ever are the primary care-givers of their children.  As a result, we have learned more about differences in the way fathers interact with their children, and the fact that fathering is not mothering.  Of course, that has not put an end to discussion about which is more important, and the idea that mothers do it better – depending on what the definition of “it” is.

Obviously, difference in itself does not imply superiority of one over another, and a more interesting question is the relevance of those differences in a child’s development.  Dr. Kyle Pruett, a child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center, has been involved in research and writing about fatherhood for some years, and is interested in how we can know that involved fathering has any bearing on the well-being of a child.  He looks at evolutionary science and asks why brain development itself would have provided the early ability of infants to discriminate fathers from mothers if this ability had no survival value? 

Research has shown that by six weeks of age, infants can distinguish their father’s voice from their mother’s voice. More provocative is the finding that while a quiet and alert infant will attend more readily to a mother’s voice, an upset or fretting infant will calm more readily to a father’s voice.  Does this finding hold as children move forward in their development?  Are fathers better at handling upsets in older children as well?

Many mothers report that fathers are often more successful than they are at ending meltdowns, or children’s upset behavior.  The question of voice also comes into this as fathers’ voices seem to carry more authority – or at least it seems so to mothers.  Also related is the matter of discipline.  Another research finding is that parents tend to feel more confident in, and less ambivalent about, their own authority when they are disciplining a child of the same gender.  The opposite is also true, in that boys feel more confident and able to say no to mothers, and girls are more comfortable saying no to fathers.  It would be interesting to speculate about why this is so.

Cultural changes also have a bearing here.  In an earlier time, fathers were established in the family as authority figures.  This even took the form of threats used to keep children in line, as in “Wait until your father gets home.”  It would be interesting to know if now that fathers are more involved in the caretaking of their children, their voices carry the same force of authority, or ability to calm upset children.  On the other hand, perhaps the findings from infancy about fathers’ voices do not relate in this particular way to later development.

A familiar observation about fathers’ interactions with their children, also identified in research findings, is that fathers activate their children in order to interact with them.  Fathers do this by entering the child’s world in less predictable, somewhat more disruptive ways than do mothers.  Mothers are often known to complain about this, saying fathers stir the baby up just when it is time to calm down for sleep.  It has been found that infants between seven and thirteen months respond more positively to being picked up by their fathers precisely because Mom picks them up for maintenance while Dad picks them up because he wants to play.  Again, it would be interesting to know how this finding holds in the face of cultural changes in caretaking.

Two related observations from the world of research hold particular interest for current criticisms about children’s behavior.  One is the father care predisposition to support novelty-seeking behavior in his child.  This is often expressed as father tolerating a child’s moving beyond usual boundaries more comfortably than mother.  Related to this is a difference in the way fathers and mothers tend to help children tolerate frustration when trying something new.

Apparently, mothers tend to offer some kind of help before a child reaches a frustration level that might interfere with the ability to complete the task.  Fathers, on the other hand, tend to hold back somewhat longer, encouraging the child either verbally, or just by physically being there, to tolerate the frustration and stick with the task.  This often enables the child to pass the point at which help might have been offered by the mother.  Of course, if the father holds back too long with his support, the whole situation can fall apart, but if successful, can give the child a great sense of mastery.

The key here would seem to be a matter of timing, which is challenging for mothers or fathers.  Do mothers feel more keenly the child’s frustration, or are mothers more inclined to ward off the behavior that might go with a child’s frustration?  Is the father’s greater tolerance part of what has been thought of as the “macho” attitude of men?

Early in the women’s movement much was made of attacking the idea that biology is destiny.  It is interesting to speculate about whether changes have occurred in behavior once attributed to biology, alongside, or as a consequence of, cultural changes in expectations of male and female behavior.

While rejecting the idea that biology is destiny, we may conclude that some differences, whether or not biological in origin, are worth preserving.