Here’s a slightly uncomfortable belief: dads matter because men are different from women.
Put differently, a father doesn’t mother-and vice versa of course!
I’ve found that friends and neighbors sometimes get uneasy when I share that observation.
There are some obvious reasons for that-so much of our recent gender history in the West is about making sure men and women are treated as equals.
Talk of differences stirs the pot a bit, and threatens to be a throwback to a culture that enforces more constrictive and damaging gender roles.
So it’s good to remember that being equal doesn’t mean we’re necessarily the same, even though we’re entitled to the same rights.
And different is neither better nor worse. It’s… well… different.
The Gifts of Being Different
Many native, earth-based cultures already know this: they hold a deep appreciation for the complementary gifts of boys and girls, of men and women, of fathers and of mothers.
These cultures believe that all aspects of life need to be balanced, and balance is partly achieved by recognizing, honoring and celebrating our differences.
They also have a profound understanding of what those differences are and how they affect our relationship to our children.
We all get this at some level. In fact, soon after we’re born we know that mom and dad are different: an 8 week old baby can tell that mom and dad have different ways of dealing with life, other adults and children.
“A father, as a male biological parent, brings unique contributions to the job of parenting a child that no one else can replicate,” says child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child.
Understanding what some of these differences are can help us dads fully embrace our power, and appreciate our crucial role in nurturing our children.
Here are some of our special contributions as dads, in no special order:
We roughhouse, tumble and get physical
We have a gift for engaging our kids through physical activities that are a bit edgy.
Whether it’s a frenzied bout of tickling, wrestling or running down hills, dads tend to get into rough, dynamic, vigorous and loud activities.
“In infants and toddlers, fathers’ hallmark style of interaction is physical play that is characterized by arousal, excitement, and unpredictability,” says Ross Parke, a psychologist who asked mothers and fathers in 390 families to describe in detail how they played with their children.
OK. Fine. But what’s the use of full-contact play?
A lot, it seems. Rough and tumble play influences a child’s ability to control her emotions and activity.
Kids who play a lot with their dads have lower risk-taking behaviours. They learn how to read social signals, regulate their emotions, stay within limits and take “manageable” risks.
A child who is good at reading social signals and tracking their feelings makes for a good friend too, someone who is more likely to be cooperative and peaceful.
We focus on agreements and rules
Can you see yourself asking your kid what the agreement was? Turns out on average we’re more rule-bound than mothers.
We have a certain way of setting boundaries and holding our kids accountable.
We stress justice, fairness and duty, whereas moms tend to focus more on sympathy, care and help, according to gender difference psychologist Carol Gilligan.
Dads often observe and enforce rules systematically and sternly. This teaches our child objectivity and consequences of right and wrong.
Moms tend to be more flexible, meeting a wild, boundary-busting child with more grace and sympathy, which provide a sense of hopefulness.
“Fathers tend to be more willing than mothers to confront their children and enforce discipline, leaving their children with the impression that they in fact have more authority,” write psychologists Marsha Kline Pruett and Kyle Pruett in Partnership Parenting.
We talk like we always do
Whereas mothers will simplify their words and speak on the child’s level, men tend to speak to their child as they normally speak.
Mom’s way makes immediate communication easier.
Dad’s way stretches the child’s use of words – an important skill for connecting to other people and doing well at school.
The differences between moms and dads are tendencies and generalizations found through a lot of qualitative research. They might shift from one culture to the next.
So how true do they seem to YOU? Do you recognize yourself in this characterization, or does it seem foreign to you?