What should we make of the research reported by Kyle D. Pruett, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Yale University’s Medical School and Child Study Lab?
He says that infants respond differently to fathers and mothers. Young children tend to relax in mommy’s presence and become more alert in daddy’s. Mothers tend to be a predictable presence to their babies.
Fathers bring excitement and surprise to their interactions. Children respond physically to the sounds of different pitches reflecting male and female presences. Playing looks different between fathers and their young children than it does between mothers and their young children.
Pruett, author of the book Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, uses this research to argue for more involvement of fathers in children’s lives. He calls upon schools and the media to recognize the value of the “not-mom” in healthy development.
When I read these studies, they help me understand the fix that many individuals and families get themselves into from the start of their parenting journey. The research gives context to the pain or confusion many fathers and mothers feel in the presence of their young children.
When misinterpreted, an infant’s differing reactions to each parent can lead couples to conflict. Sometimes a sense of competition arises. Sometimes one parent becomes “director” of the parenting practices. This can lead to one parent spending much more time with the children than the other because it works better. It can lead parents, especially fathers, to decide they are just no good at the job.
The fact that a child may feel more comfortable with one parent can lead the other parent to honor that preference and the comforting parent to insist on it: “If you can’t get him to sleep, just let me do it.” “If you can’t get her to eat, just let me feed her.”
This can be particularly hard on fathers, who often start out with less childcare experience and confidence. The parent who feels less competent may conclude that a smoothly running household is more valuable than struggling to find a way that works for them to calm or feed their offspring. Or worse, their partner may come to this conclusion, sometimes leading to martyrdom, eventual divorce and children longing for a relationship with the parent with whom they’ve spent less time.
Young fathers I know are starting out deeply committed to the idea of involvement with their children. They recognize and express deep feelings of love, interest, responsibility and enjoyment as they talk about parenting. But if the baby cries or the toddler runs away, and mom is more successful at calming or corralling, the family can fall into expert/novice mode. The expert becomes the gatekeeper for interaction with the child and the novice is the bumbling other who is well intentioned, but of no use at all. This image is reinforced nightly in many television sitcoms.
Misinterpreting the reactions of children to other people who love them and handling it by becoming protective, defensive and controlling within the household leads to big problems for marriages and children. When one parent becomes the gatekeeper to the children, no one win — not mom, not dad, not the kids. And it’s all because the parents didn’t know what to make of the differing reactions they were getting from their children.
Here are some things to think about and implement if your family is drifting into this pattern.
- The more support and encouragement you give each other while you are learning, the more likely it is that you will become an effective parenting team. It is helpful sometimes to hand a child off to the other parent when at an impasse. That is very different than having the other parent move in and take over the interaction without an invitation.
- Instead of feeling guilty or frightened when the other parent is dealing with a child who is reaching out for you, remember that your child and family benefit when you support your partner with trust. Think, “everything will be okay,” or, “I know that this will be handled” instead of, “I am abandoning my child and he will hate me.” Talk about your fears or reservations later.
- Less-confident parents need to remember that the more time they spend with a child the more likely they are to find their own ways to gain cooperation.
- Seek help in books and by talking to friends or teachers, going to parenting classes or talking to counselors.
- No parent should be handing the phone to another when a teacher or coach calls.
Pruett’s studies cut through the idea that there is one right way to be with every child, or that the parent who is naturally better at it should be the one to primarily tend to the children. They provide insight into the issue of perceived parenting competence. If one parent (and in my experience it is not always the mom) provides bedtime comforting more naturally and successfully than the other, that does not mean the other cannot offer a gentle, loving presence. If one parent can smile and relax more easily when taking the child to school and leaving, it does not mean the other is overprotective and does not support teaching the child to meet a challenge.
People who raise children together need to talk to each other about parenting. They need to think about their values and about each child. They need to recognize the strengths and issues their partner brings to the task and then decide how their household will work and what they will do when challenges arise. They need to work together to help their children grow up.
If the grownups raising children together always came from similar religions, economic levels and regions of the country and experienced similar traumas or satisfactions in their families of origin, maybe there could be less talking aloud about how things should be. Role divisions would be well defined and both parents would feel competent and respectful of the other’s contribution. The reality is that parents need to process together how they will support each other and their children and make a family life together. And most of the time, they both want to feel competent in their parenting and respected by and useful to their spouse and children.
Studies like those publicized by Pruett help us all understand children’s behavior. They do not dictate parenting roles. Only couples can work these out in the spirit of building a strong and varied set of supports for their children.