In honor of Father’s Day, this two-part blog is a follow up to an earlier series on what every new dad can do to be a competent and confident father. This series shares the research on what every mom can do to encourage rather than discourage that process (Part 1) – and takes an opportunity to show dads how appreciated you really are (Part 2).
Dads are … different.
I’m quite sure that is not a surprise to any mom reading this. I dare say most of us have experienced those slightly amused, slightly terrified feelings of watching the latest flip-them-in-the-air thing our husband was doing with our toddler. Or watching the equivalent, years later, as he lets a young middle-schooler gleefully steer a bouncing ATV on vacation.
Although we know, deep down, that kids need the difference a dad brings, it is tempting to step in, dial it down, and even snatch the toddler out of his hands (or the middle-schooler off the ATV) to keep our precious kids safe.
In other words … to strongly imply that the man in our life is an inadequate, reckless father who isn’t considering or doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions or safety of our kids.
Most of us don’t actually feel that way! We appreciate our man as a father. When we stop and think about it, we know he isn’t truly reckless or uncaring. We want him engaged but might be shutting him down instead. In other words: we may not realize just how much of a dad’s involvement may be up to us.
This dynamic is so common, it even has an official name in research literature: maternal gatekeeping. Literally hundreds of researchers have found just how much a father’s involvement is tied to the “gate-opening” (encouraging) or “gate-closing” (discouraging) actions of the mom. This dynamic has been studied all over the world. One of the most recent studies was from China. It appears to be simply part of the human condition – and of marriage!
So in honor of all the fathers out there … how do we honor our men rather than shut them down? In Part 2, I’ll share the fascinating and fun results of my recent polling of how you do exactly that – as well as one of the funniest responses I’ve ever seen from a dad. But in this Part 1, here are four facts that rise to the top as I look at many research studies.
Fact 1: Dads may be different – but their “way” is essential
Men sometimes seem like a different species for a reason. Their brains are wired differently, their communication, emotions, and processing patterns are often drastically different … and all of that creates unique strengths and parenting characteristics that our children need.
Let’s look at the data. Many studies going back decades have found that children of involved fathers have better brain development – they are literally smarter, and are more likely to enjoy school. Children of positively involved fathers are less likely to act out and choose risky behaviors – even when the parenting style is more permissive. Kids of involved dads are less likely to have depression. They are more likely to be happy and more likely to be successful in life and love years later. Even when the involved father figure is a step-father rather than the biological father, kids improve on many measures of well-being.
This doesn’t mean that kids who lack a father (or a mother for that matter) are doomed to hardship. And sadly, it doesn’t mean that all fathers will be good ones (just like not all mothers are good ones). But it does mean that if our kids are blessed to have a good father who cares, we have to do our part to ensure that he is able to be the father he is made to be.
Fact 2: When we let a dad be a dad … he is more likely to be a dad
Our men want to be good dads. They want to jump in – but they might hold back out of insecurity or uncertainty.
Remember that many of our research studies, starting with For Women Only, have found that roughly three out of four men look confident but have a lot of self-doubt on the inside. In general, a man is more likely than a woman to want to be sure that if he steps up to the plate, he’ll be able to take a good swing at the ball (in other words, at this parenting thing) instead of being told his stance is all wrong and feeling stupid. Trying to stay in control and tell our man “how” to parent is a good example of “gate-closing” behavior that will discourage involvement. (This article outlines some others.)
Thankfully, most of the studies over the decades (including the new one on mothers and fathers in China) have found that when we women encourage our men and “allow” them to do their thing, they are more likely to jump in. Our “gate-opening” behaviors, like handing him the baby, cheering him on as he allows the middle-schooler to steer the ATV, or saying “thank you so much for taking the kids to play outside while I was on that Zoom meeting!” are exactly the sorts of encouragement he needs to feel that he can step up to the parenting plate without fear of a wild pitch.
Fact 3: And because he’s being a dad … stuff may happen
Part of giving up control and being okay with a dad’s “way” means realizing that things will not always work out the way we want. As we mentioned in the earlier blogs, a dad is far more likely to engage in rambunctious play – or let kids do so – than a mom. Which means it won’t always be all safe.
I remember a weekend family retreat where I shared these points with the women on Saturday morning and then spoke to the couples that night. A woman came up to me that evening and said, “So while we were in here learning about how men parent differently, some of our husbands were out driving around on the grass with the kids in the backs of their pickup trucks! My husband hit a hard bump and our 10-year-old son tumbled out and broke his arm. So we spent the afternoon in the ER.”
She sighed. “I was really upset at first. I thought what happened was proof that I shouldn’t trust my husband, no matter what you said. But then I calmed down, reminded myself that my husband is a smart guy … and realized that if my son is going to become a strong man he needs that sort of insanity and adventure instead of always being protected by mommy. And that is just going to carry a risk that I’m going to have to trust my husband with. I know it’s crazy to say, but I think I’m just going to have to keep reminding myself that my husband loves our son just as much as I do!”
Fellow moms, I know that “allowing” our men to be dads can go against every protective instinct. And yet if we prioritize only protection, we will indeed have a safe, protected child – and will never realize just how much our child is missing.
Now, of course, all bets are off if we suspect that our man is truly reckless, under the influence, or cold and uncaring. In that case, ignore this whole piece and get advice from someone who can help you keep your kids safe! But in most cases, our man’s judgment is not defective – it’s just different. And it changes everything when we counter the temptation to close the gate by opening it instead, even if it might mean a few more winces or even ER visits than we would have had if we were the only parent.
(And yes, it will help to repeat to ourselves: My man loves the kids just as much as I do!)
Fact 4: Dad time can make all the difference
One of the great surprises of the Covid pandemic was how much certain social factors (for example, marital satisfaction) improved even as others (for example, anxiety levels) worsened. Many of the improvements could be tied to one simple factor: People were spending much more time with their loved ones. And we simply become closer with people we see all the time.
But there was another crucial thing that happened: Early on in the lockdown phase, a Harvard report found that fathers were growing closer and closer with their kids. Regardless of racial background, socio-economic status, education, and a host of other factors, nearly 70% of men felt closer to their kids and more than half said their kids were talking to them more about emotional matters.
Just because they were spending more time together.
So let’s encourage that time together. Let’s swing that gate wide open, knowing that our man wants to walk through it. Or … perhaps… swing wildly on it with his squealing child.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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