Be sure to see Part 1 of this blog. Pass it along to a man you want to encourage – especially a new father!
So now you know the encouraging truth – revealed by a recent study – that the brain of a new father can physically change to increase his competence and confidence at being the dad he wants to be. (And the changes don’t have to be limited to the early years; see Part 1 for more.)
How can a new father unlock this great change? As noted, the central finding appears to be regular, hands-on, early involvement with the baby. But what does that look like?
The new study was the first of its kind and more research is needed to unpack all the practicalities. But we can get started with three good steps – two for dads and one for moms – that will help men jump into their fathering role with confidence.
Step #1 (for Dads): If possible, arrange your life so you can engage with your baby, early and often
New dads: Based on these recent findings, you can view early fatherhood as a crucial window in which your engagement with your baby has an outsized impact. It’s a bit like having a limited-time, use-it-or-lose-it financial windfall. God has apparently wired your brain in such a way that as you spend hands-on time with your newborn during this stage, your brain will rapidly change to literally make you a better dad for the rest of your life. (As noted in part 1, you can foster certain brain changes at other times too–but this particular period is unique.)
This will not work for everyone’s situation (a military father might be deployed, for example) but if you can appeal for paternity leave, take vacation time off, or work some night shifts while your baby sleeps so you can interact when he or she is awake – now’s the time! And if you can take the baby on Saturday so Mom can sleep in or go out with friends, you may get a triple-win: a rested, appreciative partner, an improved “fathering brain” capacity, and a special connection with your child.
Making time to engage early is also critical because my research revealed a cautionary tale: Dads who didn’t make as much effort to forge a good connection with their kids when they were young found it harder (not impossible, but harder) to feel competent at being a dad 10 to 15 years later.
Step #2 (for Moms): Encourage your man to be hands-on – and let him handle things differently
Moms, you now know how crucial it is for your husband to be hands-on with the baby. Some of you are thinking: Score!! Here you go, honey! But others might need to let their man be a truly involved father.
As women transition to motherhood and joint parenthood, many of us have to come to grips with a tension that may never truly abate: Ack! Why is he handling things that way?! We see our man making very different decisions than we would, handling parenting differently than we would, and many of us instinctively pull back. We don’t usually say it this way, but our subconscious feeling may be, He’s doing it wrong. But if we then signal to our man that the kids are our domain or – even worse – that he’s somehow unwelcome or incompetent to step into that domain, we invite a downward spiral.
Most of the time, with very few exceptions, there’s no actual right or wrong between how parents want to handle things – it’s all just judgment calls. More importantly, as you’ll see in a moment, some of those differences in judgment are essential for a child’s thriving.
Thus, women need to not only be okay with their men handling things differently, but actively encourage them to jump in to hands-on parenting from the earliest hours. Most men will eagerly do this, since, thankfully, research demonstrates that contemporary men usually care just as much about their parenting role as women do.
Step #3 (for Dads): Realize that “your way” of parenting is essential for your child
Dads, you are wired to parent differently, so don’t convince yourself your way is somehow “less than.” Even as you co-parent with Mom and honor her way of operating, step in with confidence to how you’re created as a Dad.
For example, research found that where mothers and children both experience the highest bonding/reward hormones during times of cuddling and affection, fathers and children experience the highest bonding/reward hormones during times of rough-and-tumble play! One British anthropologist theorized that such play:
[I]s crucial to the father-child bond and the child’s development for two reasons: first, the exuberant and extreme nature of this behaviour allows dads to build a bond with their children quickly; it is a time-efficient way to get the hits of neurochemicals required for a robust bond, crucial in our time-deprived Western lives where it is still the case that fathers are generally not the primary carer for their children.
Second, due to the reciprocal nature of the play and its inherent riskiness, it begins to teach the child about the give and take of relationships, and how to judge and handle risk appropriately; even from a very young age, fathers are teaching their children these crucial life lessons.
Similarly, according to a study I saw years ago, anthropologists around the world have found that dads will on average let their toddlers stray three times farther away than the mom will. In other words: Go explore, little one, and have an adventure, even if you aren’t completely protected from all possible harm!
Dads, the point is: You don’t mind scraped knees as much as moms do. You’re much more inclined to tell your kids to suck it up and keep going. And just as protective nurturing and bonding is essential for building character, so is curiosity and resilience.
As long as you’re also attentive to and affirming of your kids, and telling them things like “I’m so proud of you” and (especially daughters) “I love you,” they will feel both safe and able to handle risk and adventure as they grow.
The bottom line, for all of us, is to remember that both mothers and fathers adore their children and bring great strengths to the task of parenthood. This is a beautiful reflection of how God has set things up! I Thessalonians 2:12 captures the essence of a father’s love for his children as an encourager and a comforter. Psalm 103:13 compares the compassion the Lord shows to us with the compassion a father shows to his child.
And now brain science shows us that early infant interaction on a father’s part can set him up for success with something that has mattered to him all along – being a good dad.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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