Five years ago I silenced a room of mothers with this pronouncement: “Fathers are the single greatest untapped resource in the lives of America’s families.” By crediting men with some child-centered resources, I had apparently left them speechless. But they saw my comments in a new light after I asked them to look at three things: 1) the father through their children’s eyes, 2) their own experience with their fathers and whether they wanted the same or different for their children, and 3) how their mothers had or hadn’t helped their fathers father them.
For 30 years, nudged along by the Women’s Movement, researchers have examined the father-child connection and repeatedly found one constant: fathers do not mother. But what they do do has a profound effect. The evidence shows that children with positively engaged fathers behave and perform better in school, are better friends, solve problems better, are less physically aggressive, have richer vocabularies, and have higher self-esteem.
Look at these six common father traits to see how partnership parenting strengthens families:
Fathers Encourage Exploration
From early in life, men want to see their children engage actively with the outside world. This is seen even in the way they hold their children as infants—more outward-facing (exploring) than inward (comforting). Support your spouse in doing it his way. It helps the child adapt to yet another style of healthy, affectionate physical interaction.
Fathers Foster Independence
Picture a preschooler struggling to tie his shoes before school. The father doesn’t immediately help, while the mom says, “Just tie his shoes for him. Can’t you can see he’s frustrated?” Dad is thinking, “He’ll get it eventually, but not if I do it for him all the time.” Men want their kids to develop more autonomy and independence—qualities they value highly when kids grow up and enter the real world.
Fathers Don’t Talk About Feelings
Boys come into the world with less intense social appetites, talking later and less often. And co-parenting fathers often hang back and let their spouses take over. But, when fathers do talk about feelings to a child, the child really listens and feels appreciated. If you want more co-parenting action in this arena, show your appreciation when your spouse does talk about feelings, and tell him what a big effect it has on the child.
Fathers Play Rather Than Teach
Chances are, you’re a more overt educator than your spouse, but that doesn’t mean he’s wasting your child’s time. Playful encouragement can be a quicker, more engaging way to make kids explore and learn new things. A growing body of research supports playful learning as one of the best ways for children to maintain a positive attitude toward learning throughout their lives. So, sit back and enjoy watching your kid play with his father.
Fathers Ignore Minor Details
For many men, a child’s clothes don’t have to match, and cold cereal instead of a hot meal won’t matter in 10 years. With practice and patience, you can brush off parenting differences like this, and instead use them as an opportunity to have productive conversations with your partner. Embrace the differences.
Fathers Don't Talk Much About Their Dreams
Since most parents multi-task well enough to keep their families on track logistically, it seems that most planning and dreaming about what they really want for their kids just happens naturally. Wrong. Odds are, you are probably not talking to each other often enough about your hopes and dreams for them, not to mention your worries and fears for them. Talk regularly and often about how you are working together—or not—and how to help each other be the best parents you can be.
Raising children together—truly together, not just in parallel—weaving together your individual strengths to shore up your individual weaknesses, is one of the great creative adventures of family life and the lessons never end. Just ask any grandparent.
Kyle D. Pruett, MD, is a trusted advisor on the educational advisory board of the Goddard School (www.goddardschool.com), and he is a professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University.