To Benefit Kids, Give Dads Their Due

Bad moms, good moms, moms who drink — the media is so mother-centric these days that it's easy to forget many kids also have a male parent. But according to the New York Times, we ignore dads at our peril.

The Times's Laurie Tarkan describes a new study showing that low-income families benefited when fathers took parenting classes. She writes that "fathers not only spent more time with their children than the controls did but were also more active in the daily tasks of child-rearing. They became more emotionally involved with their children, and the children were much less aggressive, hyperactive, depressed or socially withdrawn than children of fathers in the control group." However, the effect was greatest when moms attended classes alongside dads, implying (unsurprisingly) that parents who communicate and support each other are best for kids. But dads may have trouble getting the support they need.

Tarkan writes that, "as much as mothers want their partners to be involved with their children, experts say they often unintentionally discourage men from doing so. Because mothering is their realm, some women micromanage fathers and expect them to do things their way." The assertion is a little annoying, reminiscent as it is of a similar narrative about chores: women just don't let men do the laundry, the thinking goes, because it has to be done their way. Similarly stereotypical are the words of Dr. Kyle Pruett, co-author of the book Partnership Parenting. He says, "dads tend to discipline differently, use humor more and use play differently. Fathers want to show kids what's going on outside their mother's arms, to get their kids ready for the outside world." Pruett adds that dads "tend to encourage risk-taking and problem-solving" — but these are pretty sweeping generalizations. I know my dad didn't "encourage risk-taking," unless you call not driving on the freeway until you're eighteen years old a risk. And slotting parents into sitcom-ready roles (Mom the protector, Dad the one who lets you get dirty) only multiplies the obstacles they have to face in working together.

But there are some ways that larger social expectations harm both moms and dads. Tarkan quotes psych professor Philip A. Cowan, who says,

The walls in family resource centers are pink, there are women's magazines in the waiting room, the mother's name is on the files, and the home visitor asks for the mother if the father answers the door. It's like fathers are not there.

By treating moms like the primary parent, research centers and other social services just make it more difficult for dads to get involved — and maybe even perpetuate the notion that only Mom knows the right way to do things. Rather than accusing individual mothers of considering motherhood their "realm," we should be tackling the widespread cultural perception that women naturally know about child-rearing and men are just bumbling babysitters who show up every now and then to teach baseball skills. Cowan says parents need to stop criticizing each other so much — "Instead, they should be saying, ‘How can each of us be the kind of parent that we are?'"— but parenting experts have some large-scale recommendations that may be even more effective. Tarkan writes,

[P]ictures of families on the walls of clinics and public agencies should have fathers in them. All correspondence should be addressed to both mother and father. Staff members should be welcoming to men. Steps like these promote early and lasting involvement by fathers.

These may seem like small changes, but they would start sending the message that parenting is a cooperative process, not Mom's job and Dad's hobby. It's a message that moms, dads, and kids all desperately need.

Fathers Gain Respect From Experts (And Mothers) [NYT]
Paying More Attention To Fathers [NYT Well Blog]