In Praise of Old Fashioned Dad

by Steven Rhoads, June 23, 2004

Fathers’ Day is approaching, which means the news will be rife with articles praising stay-at-home dads who tend to infants and toddlers. But it is rare that we see these fathers in real life.

Instead, in the real world, mothers tend to infants because their hormones – especially estrogen and oxytocin – make babies especially alluring. Even hard charging female academics, desperately trying to get tenure, like to do every part of infant and toddler care –comforting, caring for the child when sick, buying food or toys, even changing diapers-- more than their husbands do. Fathers are loaded with testosterone, which inhibits nurturing tendencies.

And the babies themselves prefer their mothers. A mother’s familiar heartbeat and voice calm a baby in a way a father cannot, and even in families where fathers have taken a four-month paid parental leave, babies and toddlers prefer to be comforted by their mothers. Moreover, young women who have never had children and done little or no babysitting are better than young men at distinguishing infant emotions.

When kids get older, they love to play with a rambunctious and stimulating dad. But as infants they prefer play with mom to that with dad. Moms are more attentive to their babies—they notice every little utterance and patiently follow their infant’s looking behavior when presenting a new toy.

Fathers do play an important role in their children’s development. When their children grow beyond infancy, fathers like to teach and play with their kids. They show them how to build and fix things and how to play sports. They are better than mothers at teaching children how to deal with novelty and frustration and thus are more likely than mothers to encourage children to work out problems and address challenges themselves—from putting on their shoes to operating a new toy.

Sometimes mothers worry that by rough-housing and play-fighting dads are over-stimulating their boys and making them more aggressive. But, in fact, this type of rough play teaches not aggression but self-control and limits. Fathers teach boys not to bite and kick in rough play. The children whose aggressive behavior is out of control are those without fathers at home; these kids are unpopular with peers because they respond in a truly aggressive manner when other boys try to initiate rough-and tumble-play.

When the kids become older, fathers are better than mothers at controlling unruly teenage boys. Fathers also help their teenage girls. By providing a husbandly model of love and stability, they give their daughters the confidence to expect the same and to ignore boys who seem interested only in their sexual favors.

While moms sometimes complain that dads want to do only the fun things—the teaching and playing-- it is mothers who are nonetheless much more likely than dads to say that they love parenting; indeed, men’s biological makeup makes it unlikely that they will like the day by day nurturing part of parenting as much as moms do. In those two-career families where husband and wife are determined to share domestic and paid work equally, the father’s insistence on more paid help is often a recurring argument.

With older children, as with infants, the kids seem to do better when mom rather than dad can spend more time at home. When mom works less, student achievement increases, but when dad works less, there is a decline in their children’s academic achievement. In addition, higher maternal job satisfaction decreases daughters’ psychological well-being, while paternal job satisfaction increases it.

Their preferences and those of their children produce a desire in most mothers to do less paid work in return for more time with their kids. Mixing modern careers with the often unexpected or inexplicable need to bond with their young often brings heartbreaking torment to some of our most talented women.

It is indicative that fathers are not generally as tormented as mothers by prolonged absence from children. Instead, by faithfully working at (often boring) jobs to provide for their families, fathers create the environment for less stressful, happier homes and families, as well as for the nurturing that mothers love to do and that children crave. On Fathers’ Day we should more often proclaim, “Viva la difference.”

© 2004 Steven E. Rhoads
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