In more ways than he used to, even as the traditional patriarch of old. A new book by Paul Raeburn, “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” tells us how to count and what to count as the ways. Raeburn reports on research that spells out the impact of fathers on their children’s development.
As with all research, the attempt to correlate cause and effect can be misleading both as a generalization and as applied to individuals. When it comes to questions about behavior that involve gender differences, the additional question becomes whether something is biologically or socially determined. Particularly with regard to male/female differences in behavior as parents, the history of social and cultural roles has shaped what is expected and considered acceptable.
Historically, the expectation that women have a caretaking role has been based on biology: women carry babies in their bodies and nurse them after they are born. With the advent of psychological thinking a new dimension came into play. The psychological and feminine attributes of mothers were deemed to have great importance for the development of young children.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby, drawing from his early interest in animal behavior, focused on what was seen as a biologically based need for attachment to a primary figure beyond the basic need to be fed. Since this was a period when care of children was primarily the mother’s role, much of the early theoretical thinking that emerged was based on the mother as the important attachment figure. In the present era in which the roles of women have changed, along with the emphasis on attachment theory an effort has been made to expand the list of those able to fill that need. Much of the interest in fathers has been part of that effort.
Some differences noted between mothers and fathers have become generally accepted. One such difference is that father’s play is more physical in nature and that fathers are more expansive in letting children try things, such as climbing higher on the jungle gym or moving away from a parent. Of course, as with all behavior there are individual differences and exceptions.
Parents of a three year old boy spoke to me recently about some of his behavior that was of concern to them. One of the mom’s concerns was that the child was incredibly fast and could run faster than she could catch him. He refused to hold her hand walking outside and would break away running down the street. She was worried about sounding like a “helicopter parent” but felt this was a real safety concern.
I asked her if she knew if the child could stop himself when he reached the corner as a younger child would not yet have that ability. The mother said she did not know and was afraid he would not. Dad, however, interjected that he knew the boy could and explained that he does so when dad walks with him. It was interesting that mom saw the behavior as the child wanting to break away from her, the mother. Dad said, “It has nothing to do with you. He needs to do that for himself – to break free like a big boy.”
The mother said by way of explanation that the father was one of six boys while she was one of three girls. Is that why he could better accept his son’s wish to “break free?” Is it because he is a man with male hormones and “masculine” attributes? Or is it because of the difference in culturally approved activities and behavior for boys and girls when mom and dad were growing up? These are the imponderable questions that arise in such discussions of behavioral differences between people, especially gender differences.
Whatever the basis of such differences, most often they can work to the benefit of children. Problems can arise when these differences lead to strongly held opinions about how to respond to children in various situations. Parents often speak to me about these differences with the idea of adjudicating which one is “right” and which is “wrong.”
At times, as in the example given, mothers are seen as too protective and fathers as unrealistic about children’s capabilities. As a consequence, instead of working it out together they reinforce each other’s behavior, mother becoming more protective to defend against father and father intensifying his own behavior in reaction to mom.
The key here is for parents to respect each other’s observations as adding something important to their understanding of their child. They each may have strengths and limitations in their outlook and responses. Talking them through rather than acting them out can lead to moderating the weaknesses and benefiting from the strengths.
Mothers and fathers both matter. They may parent in different ways while contributing equally to a child’s development.