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Parents Corner

Dads’ parenting style

Richard Laliberte

Raising kids is like managing a career: One turn of events can have a big impact on your performance rating. I was reminded of this when we replaced our family room carpet-and banished all toys to the basement. Our stock with the kids took a huge hit.

But we also moved the old carpet downstairs to cover what had been bare concrete. Suddenly, Jordan, 8, and Marissa, 6, had a large, soft play space unencumbered by good-carpet rules. We had lots of room for "Dad games": body-slamming into big, cushy pillows, attacking each other with large, spongy tubes, and playing a tussled baseball-football combo.

Within a week, Marissa reported to my wife that her love for me had grown "from this much" (spreading her hands a bit wider than shoulder width) to "this much" (hands at full wingspan)-an improvement of at least 35 percent.

In business, I’d get a raise. But at home, I reaped a different benefit: My wife stopped fretting about somebody getting hurt (admittedly, it happens) and chiding me for getting the kids all worked up. She saw that through horseplay, I was bonding with them in a loving, important way.

A Clash Of Styles

"Many mothers complain that dads will rev kids up too much, aren’t as concerned if they get tired or dirty, and don’t watch them as carefully as they should," says Henry Biller, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rode Island. The broader translation: Dads can be irresponsible, uncaring, and even irrelevant, especially since many aren’t able to spend as much time with their children as mothers do. In the early 1990s, researchers surveyed studies on family relationships and childhood development and found that in 50 percent of them, fathers, weren’t even mentioned. But the parenting landscape is changing rapidly.

  • Baby-boomer dads spend one-third more time with their kids than their fathers did with them-and young dads are spending an even greater amount of time with their children.
  • Although the number of fathers who stay home to raise children is small (0.8 percent, compared to 21 percent of mothers), the rate nearly doubled between 1991 and 1996.
  • Households headed by single fathers are the fastest-growing type of family-up 25 percent between 1995 and 1998 – in part, experts speculate, because courts are awarding custody to dads in divorce cases more often.
  • Since the early 1990s, the federal government has instituted such programs as the Unwed Fathers Project and the Responsible Fatherhood Demonstration Project, and continued to fund studies to better understand the role of fathers in families.

What’s becoming clear is that "although men may take a different approach, the essence of good parenting-sharing and sacrificing yourself emotionally, spiritually, materially and intellectually – has nothing to do with gender," says Kyle Prutee, M.D., a professor of childhood development at Yale University, and author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. Experts now realize that neither a mom’s way nor a dad’s way is better, and both ways work to a child’s benefit.

But the mere presence of a father isn’t as important as "emotional paternity" – a special bond that children share with their dads other men, says Dr. Pruett. This crucial connection can be established when fathers spend time playing, discipling, and helping to care for their children.

The most important ways dads help raise kids right:

1. Turning Work Into Child’S Play

Even during mundane chores like changing diapers, giving a bath, or supervising tooth brushing, dads tend to be physically playful. They’ll pick up a child by her feet or splash water on her head when she doesn’t expect it. Father are often more unpredictable, surprising (and, truth be told, disruptive) than moms, who tend to stick with calm, familiar routines. Babies notice the difference early on: When a 2 month old senses that her dad is approaching she’ll scrunch up her shoulders, open her eyes wide, and breathe more quickly, anticipating excitement. (With her mom, she’ll tend to relax her shoulders and lower her eyelids.)

As their kids get older, dads are apt to rely less on board games or toys during playtime that to create spontaneous fun. "When I get home from work, my so is just waiting for me to chase after him," say Jim McAllister, of Springvale, Maine. "I’ll make a quick move toward him, and he’ll crack up and take off down the hall." Says Curtis Cooper, of Apple Valley, Minnesota, "My wife usually reads to our six year old son and five year old daughter, but I typically let them jump on me.

Research shows that babies and toddlers who bond with their fathers feel more secure and curious, and get less frustrated by problems than those who don’t have a lot of one on one time. The benefits can be seen early on: "A child who’s starting to crawl, for instance, is more likely to push and pull at an obstacle, or back up and try a different route, rather than cry for help," says Dr. Pruett.

Fooling around can also teach kids to be compassionate in emotionally charged or stressful situations. "A dad is more likely than a mom to get physical with the kids, but it someone gets hurts, he’ll immediately calm everyone down so that the conflict doesn’t escalate further," says Brenda Volling, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "While he’s making sure everyone’s okay, his children learn to put their own fun on hold to help others. His compassion teaches them how to empathize."

2. Inspiring Sibling Love

It’s natural for the dad to spend extra time with an older sibling when the mom is caring for a new baby. But Volling’s research finds that this can have benefits beyond giving a tired mom a break: In older kids, it may foster a willingness to share with and teach their younger siblings – years later.

"When our second child, Emily, was born, she became ‘Mommy’s girl’, and our three year old, Allison, became ‘Daddy’s girl,’" says Stephen Emick, of Allentown, Pennsylvania. "Allison and I were always close, but now she really enjoys doing things with just me. But she’s also wiling to share her toys and play teacher with Emily."

"When a baby is being smothered with attention, it’s important to make an older child feel she’s special too," says Volling, by being the center of her father’s attention, the older child thinks she’s getting more equal distribution of love.

3. Teaching Kids To Cope

Whether his child is learning to ride a bike, to solve a puzzle, or to decide what to play with a friend, a father will often encourage her to work through a problem, even if it causes a tear or two. "When Haleigh, who’s five, is perched on the edge of a platform at the playground and afraid to come down, I don’t carry her off," says her dad, Steven Klem, of Cocoa Beach, Florida, who moderates a chat room for at-home dads on America Online. "I say, ‘You can do this. Find a way to get down on your own.’ It doesn’t help her if she always has to rely on me.

Dads also teach their children that every action has a consequence. In our house, Jordan loves to dawdle before getting ready for bed. But I let him manage his own time-and if his pajamas aren’t on, and his teeth aren’t brushed by 9:00 PM, I just won’t ready him a bedtime story. My wife, on the other hand, is more inclined to update him continually with reminders to get moving-and then will let things slide if he doesn’t make the deadline.

Stepping back or making kids live with their choices can seem harsh to moms, who tend to be quick to comfort a child before he becomes upset. But studies find a dad’s hands-off approach can help a child build confidence and keep cool in the face of difficulties. A preschooler, for example, may be more willing to try out a new set of monkey bars or take turns on a slide: by grade school, he may be better able to withstand the pressure of exams and cliques than those who lack a nurturing father.

4. Introducing Children To The Real Work

It may take a village to raise a child, but in most cultures, it’s a father’s job to show his son and daughter what real life is like. And dads do this from the start: Once their babies are old enough, fathers like to carry them facing outward, say Dr. Pruett. As their kids get older, dads are quick to offer constructive criticism. "When a child misbehaves a man is more likely to say, 'If you keep acting like that, you won’t have any friends,’ or you won’t be successful,’" says Dr. Pruett. Mothers, however, may focus on soothing their child’s feelings.

Their ease in detaching themselves emotionally may even make fathers more effective disciplinarians, says Dr. Pruett. "Children realize that crying or complaining won’t help them get their way."

McAllister, for instance, expects courteous behavior from his 18 month old son: "Liam can be rough and boisterous," he says, "but when he’s around a friend’s eight month daughter, I make it clear that he has to be careful with her. I act as if he can understand me, even if he really doesn’t." And, surprisingly, Liam usually lives up to his father’s wishes. "He respects her space. He won’t quickly run up to her like he will to children his own age, and will only touch her gently," says McAllister.

Dads can also set a good example of how men and women should interact in everyday life, says Volling. "Without a positive male role model, girls in particular may not learn how to relate with boys or men."

5. Boosting Language Skills

Research has shown that the more a dad reads to his child, the better she becomes at expressing her ideas and feelings. Certainly, reading with a mom is also beneficial. But the way men speak to kids, using playful voices, bigger words and less baby talk than moms do, piques and holds their interest and helps teach them how to communicate.

"I talk to my son like a grown-up, not a toddler," says McAllister. "My wife calls his bottle a 'bubba," because that’s what he calls it. I call it a bottle, because that’s its real name." While both a mom’s style of imitating and a dad’s way of speaking can boost language skills early on, researchers believe the combination also helps children perform better in school. Girls, in particular, are less likely "to give up on math and science once they hit the fourth or fifth grade," says Dr. Pruett.

Kids have a beneficial effect on their dads as well: Studies find that fathers who are close to their children tend to be more compassionate, easygoing, and responsible. They also tend to have stronger marriages-even after the kids have flown the coop.

And fatherhood simply has its own pleasures. I didn’t institute "Dad games" out of premeditated concerns for my kids’ social and intellectual development. We started playing because it was fun-for me as much as for them.

Isn’t that the essence of being a good father? You can be the stern disciplinarian when it’s necessary, and you may disappoint your kids in innumerable ways, but when it comes down to it, what they’ll remember most are the times you were just happy to be there.

Fatherhood From Afar

A dad who doesn’t live with his kids can still maintain a close, loving relationship with them. The key: Show them they can count on you, even though you don’t get to see them every day, says Vivian Gadsden, Ph.D., director of the National Center of Fathers and Families, in Philadelphia. Here, ways that dad can stay involved.

AGREE ON A TIME EVERY DAY, such as after breakfast or before bedtime, when you can call or e-mail your child and catch up. If you won’t be able to keep the appointment, try to let your child know in advance. Otherwise, get in touch as soon as you can, apologize for the delay, and explain why it occurred. If this happens rarely, he’ll understand.

Keep Up With Your Child’S Interests

Ask her questions, and really listen to her answers. Try to remember the names of her friends and favorite video games. And check out her latest drawing or homework assignment by having her fax or e-mail it to you.

Only Make Promises You Can Keep

Don’t commit to a ball game, and then back out at the last minute. It’s better to surprise a child with tickets, rather than disappoint him by braking a date.

Take One Some Childcare Responsibilities

Bring her to checkups, or help her with back-to-school shopping, for instance.

And what if a dad isn’t consistently involved? A mom can remind him of birthdays and school performances, but she also needs to be honest with her child by telling her that her father loves her even though he can’t always be counted on. Otherwise, unrealistic high hopes will lead to hard falls. And it’s always good for a child to spend time with other caring men – a grandfather, an uncle or a close family friend-even if her dad plays an active role in her life. – Sarah McNally

Where Do Moms Fit In?

Today, the role dads play in their children’s lives is directly affected by shifts in the way moms view themselves, their work, their kids, and their marriages. Peggy Orenstein documents women’s deepest thoughts in her new book, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World. She talked to Parenting about how family life is evolving:

Q. Why is family life so different these days?

A. We’ve gone from the women’s liberation of the 1970’s to the backlash of the 1980’s to whiplash. Women are told we have a lot of choices, but what we really have are tough trade-offs. Employers haven’t altered the work culture to accommodate parents’ changing roles. And deep within a women’s psyche is still this idea that part of being a good mother is micromanaging the family.

Q. How can moms stop micromanaging?

A. They need to stop feeling like everything is a reflection on them. I was at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, and her 2-year-old daughter came out of the bedroom wearing an admittedly odd outfit. My friend said, "Looks like Daddy dressed her today," and then they disappeared. A little later her daughter had on a nice dress. My friend couldn’t help herself. But moms need to bite their tongue if, say, their kid’s clothing doesn’t match.

Q. Why do many women tend to berate themselves for being bad mothers?

A. Usually because they feel like they do less than their own mothers did. Meanwhile, men feel like better fathers-because they do more than their own fathers did. But that sets the bar too low. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild said, "Men shouldn’t be comparing themselves to their dads, but to their wives."

Q. Do stay-at-home moms have it any easier?

A. They sometimes feel even greater pressure to be perfect. A mom who’s always with the kids may view them as her only measure of success, so she goes above and beyond (the call of duty). She may also find it hard to make demands on her spouse, in terms of sharing childcare tasks and chores, because he "works". But you have to discuss whether you’re going to be partners in raising kids-or just single mom with a husband.

Q. Were any women you interviewed happy wit their family’s balance of power?

A. The women who seemed the most satisfied were those who earned as much or more than their spouses, and those whose partners had flexible jobs or who were self-employed. That slight push against tradition, or outright role reversal, evidently encouraged men to assume more responsibility at home. The moms were happier, the family life ran more smoothly, and the dads seemed more connected to their kids.

Q. How can moms get dads involved?

A. By letting dads spend time alone with their children from the beginning. If you’re nursing, express milk, get out of the house, and leave your husband alone with the baby. When the baby cries while he’s holding her, don’t take her. Let him figure it out. Early on, it may feel good to be the only one who can clam the baby down, but it you start out this way, be prepared to still assume all the responsibility when the kid is 10.

Q. What if dads are hesitant to help out?

A. Certainly there are men who purposefully get out of doing their share. They’re capable, just not willing. But if your spouse does something wrong in childcare (like forgetting to pick up the kids at softball practice), don’t just let him off the hook. Swallowing your won resentment will have a profound impact on the quality of your marriage-and the relationship you both have with your kids.

Q. How can society encourage dads to play a greater role?

A. There needs to be government-mandated paternity leave. Studies have shown that men who take paternity leave develop a closer connection to their kids than those who don’t. Ultimately, family life will become less stressful. Dads who share childcare responsibilities tend to feel more positive about their wives’ employment and their wives are happier.

Q. What do you ultimately wish for moms?

A. That they challenge their own assumptions about motherhood, and they figure out how to build more satisfying lives. It’s easy to get absorbed in the moment, and then look up 10 to 20 years later, and say, wait, this isn’t where I meant to be.

Other useful resources

Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots has established the Drew Bledsoe Foundation Parenting With Dignity program. Bledsoe says of his success "my parents helped me the most to be what I am today" and his goal is to help other parents give their children the best possible start. For more information, see

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Last modified: January 26, 2013