What About Fathers?

Yes, what about fathers!  We expect a lot more of fathers than we used to.  They are also getting more scrutiny as a result – to which mothers have long been exposed.  Actually, some of that scrutiny comes from mothers themselves, who are used to playing the major role in child-rearing (and certainly child care.)

Despite their own anxieties, mothers – and often fathers agree – consider themselves the greater authority about their children.  Starting in infancy mothers and babies seem to have a special bond, especially if moms are nursing.  Although dads have learned how to do bottle feeding and change diapers, the baby’s seeming preference for mom can make dads feel shut out.

Feeling this way can lead fathers to try to do things the way mom does it.  And trying to imitate someone else can be very inhibiting.  One father said he felt incompetent when caring for his son until he became aware that he was trying to follow exactly what his wife did.  Once he realized this, he decided to do whatever came more naturally to him, and things were much better after that.  

Fathers and mothers are also men and women. . . .who are known often to approach things differently.  Fathers play with children differently than mothers do.  They are more inclined toward physical activity and their interactions with their children are likely to take that form.  They can often tolerate or even encourage more daring behavior, such as climbing higher on the jungle gym in the playground.  Mothers sometimes complain about fathers over-stimulating children by roughhousing with them before bedtime.  Fathers, on the other hand, may complain that mothers are “too soft”, and give in to children too easily. 

Sometimes fathers feel strongly about authority and react if they feel challenged by a child.  One father punished his son for calling him names.  Mom, on the other hand, understood that the boy was angry at his father for making him take his construction apart in order to put it away.  It seems not unusual for mothers and fathers to disagree about punishment, with Mom feeling that Dad is taking too hard a line.  Of course, sometimes the opposite is true; mothers may feel that fathers undermine their authority.

Mothers and fathers may each unwittingly reinforce the very positions they oppose in their mates.  Mom tries to compensate for Dad’s toughness by becoming more indulgent, which in turn, causes Dad to become tougher to make up for Mom’s indulgence.  Children can be very adept at using this phenomenon to play parents off against each other to their own advantage: telling Mom, “Dad says it’s o.k.”, and to Dad, “Mom said I can do it.”  When mothers and fathers are able to be responsive to each other’s point of view, however, the approach of each may be modified, and children can then benefit from these differences in their parents.

One important gender difference that can interfere with the ability of parents to solve parenting questions is that men tend to be invested in fixing problems, while women are often more focused on understanding feelings.  This sometimes plays out as action vs. empathy. . . and conflict between parents.  In the earlier example of the boy and his construction, to Dad it was more important to do something about the behavior, while Mom wanted Dad to understand why the child was angry at him.  Although they both agreed that the behavior was not acceptable, they ended up being angry at each other.  

The thing to remember is that differences in approach do not mean that one person is right and the other wrong.  Mothers and fathers each have something important to contribute.  It is as important for parents to be able to “hear” each other as it is for both to “hear” their children.  “Hearing” means listening.  It doesn’t mean you have to do what the other person says.  It does mean taking the other’s point of view into consideration, whether it is your spouse or your child.  This kind of listening can often lead to a solution both parents can support, which in turn will make it a better solution both for the problem and for the child.

Fathers are learning how to be fathers – not mothers.  Everyone learns best when praised for things done well, rather than criticized for doing it the “wrong way”.  Fathers and mothers each need the support and approval of the other, just as children do from both parents.