Different Strokes

Dads don'’t parent like moms, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.


When I was very young, a tornado warning sounded in our Minneapolis suburb. While my mother had us kids huddled in the basement, my father stayed upstairs reading the paper, unconcerned. I’d seen The Wizard of Oz and knew what tornadoes could do. I recall thinking, If my mother is right, then my father is going to die; but if my father is right, then my mother is crazy.

Later I realized they simply had different parenting styles. Much has been written about the need for parents to concur on child-rearing issues or risk sending mixed signals. Of course, common sense dictates that it’s best not to have Dad say bedtime is 7 and Mom say it’s 8. But it seems equally evident that the world is fraught with mixed signals, and the sooner children learn to interpret them, the better off they’ll be. Yet as obvious as that is, most couples experience increased stress after the baby arrives, and one of the stressors is the division of baby-care duties as moms and dads with disparate ways of doing things struggle to compromise.

That’s unfortunate, because men and women are equally capable caretakers—and in many ways very much alike. A mother’s anxieties increase during pregnancy, but so do the father’s as he frets about being a good provider. Both parents react to an infant’s cry with identical changes in pulse, respiration and sensory activity. Yes, mothers are more likely than fathers to respond to the infant’s cry, but this may be because a baby’s wail elevates a father’s testosterone, which—at least in the experience of this reporter—can arouse his instinct to protect rather than to comfort.

Today’s dads want to be involved, and there are many reasons why moms should let them even though a father will care for his baby in a characteristically male manner. Take something as simple as carrying: Dads tend to hold their infants facing outward, letting them observe the world as it passes, as opposed to moms, who usually carry them facing in. Or take play: Fathers are more unpredictable and physical, tossing and jiggling and otherwise maneuvering infants in a way that excites the baby 70 percent of the time they play together. Mothers, who tend to be more verbal, familiar and soothing, excite their babies just 4 percent of the time. And babies clearly enjoy time with their dads. Researchers have observed them scrunch up their shoulders, speed their breathing and widen their eyes in excited anticipation when fathers approach.

A father’s presence in his baby’s life produces huge benefits. While mothers tend to allow children less autonomy and act sooner to remove obstacles in a child’s way, many fathers challenge kids to be self-sufficient and give them more time to solve their own problems. Mothers traditionally worry that the rough play that fathers favor will encourage aggression, but in fact, such activity teaches children how to keep aggressiveness in check. Indeed, it’s believed that the sons of absentee fathers are more likely to be violent or delinquent. And it’s not just boys who benefit: Daughters who play rough-and-tumble with their fathers tend to have more self-confidence and do better in school.

At the very minimum, being the recipient of two parenting styles teaches a child how to weigh options and make choices. In the case of the tornado that was going to carry off our house, I chose to run upstairs and die with my father, though when he sat me on his lap and wrapped his newspaper around me, I was somehow unafraid.