During much of my 15 years advocating for fathers and their rights in family courts, I’ve been vaguely troubled by something. I’ve always known that men generally make excellent, caring parents and, through educating myself about the masculine art of child rearing, I learned that men and women tend to behave differently in their roles as parents. Put simply, the two sexes don’t parent the same. There’s a fair body of social science on this that’s pretty well known by most people who try to change family law and family judges’ behavior to give kids more of a relationship with their dads post-divorce. Generally speaking, women tend to be more verbal and protective whereas men allow their kids greater freedom, engage in more physical play and ask them to try to solve problems themselves before coming to an adult for help.
Those different but necessary parenting styles tend to work together to create a child who knows he’s loved for himself but also knows he needs to merit love from those who aren’t his parents. And of course, across a wide array of categories, he does better than do his single-parent-reared peers.
So what have I been troubled about? As I see the role of men as fathers expanding, I’ve also seen media depictions of fathers as incompetent, dangerous or uncaring about their children flooding television, the movies, children’s books and the like. Yes, authoritative data sets show fathers spending almost as much time in parenting activities as mothers, but popular culture and family courts aren’t having it. To them, fathers are either bad for children outright or an unwanted interloper on the mother-child relationship. So I wondered what impact that would have on fathers who are desperately trying to establish and maintain contact with and moral authority over their kids. In order to be accepted as a legitimate parent in the eyes of courts, culture, their friends, relatives and neighbors, would men learn to parent like women? Would they put aside those masculine parental behaviors that so combine with the feminine kind to produce the synergy kids need? In order to gain parental equality, I wondered, would fathers change so that, in effect, every child had two mommies?
I needn’t have worried. This article reprises some recent research on the subject and it seems that, when it comes to parenting, fathers truly are still going their own way (Wall Street Journal, 1/23/13).
Mr. Mom is dead.The article is mostly about stay-at-home-dads, but is no less applicable to those who split the day between work and home. The fact is that stay-at-home-moms still outnumber their male counterparts by about 5.7 million to 189,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And, due to the Census Bureau’s unduly restrictive definition of “stay-at-home parent,” both those numbers are actually quite low, so the real gap between SAHMs and SAHDs is greater than it would seem.
At least, the pop-culture image of the inept dad who wouldn’t know a diaper genie from a garbage disposal has begun to fade. In his place, research shows, is emerging a new model of at-home fatherhood that puts a distinctly masculine stamp on child-rearing and home life.
At-home dads aren’t trying to be perfect moms, says a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Instead, they take pride in letting their children take more risks on the playground, compared with their spouses. They tend to jettison daily routines in favor of spontaneous adventures with the kids. And many use technology or DIY skills to squeeze household budgets, or find shortcuts through projects and chores, says the study, based on interviews, observation of father-child outings and an analysis of thousands of pages of at-home dads’ blogs and online commentary.
“Just as we saw a feminization of the workplace in the past few decades, with more emphasis on such skills as empathy and listening, we are seeing the opposite at home—a masculinization of domestic tasks and routines,” says Gokcen Coskuner-Balli, an assistant professor of marketing at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and lead author of the study. “Many men are building this alternative model of home life that is outdoorsy, playful and more technology-oriented.”
In New Rochelle, N.Y., at-home dad Bryan Grossbauer takes his children, 2-year-old Finn and 9-month-old Georgina, outside twice a day for yard work or a hike through the woods. He wasn’t bothered when Finn recently picked a route through a big puddle and took a fall. “He walked back home happy as a lark, covered in mud,” says Mr. Grossbauer, a former actor and teacher.
He takes pride in pushing the kids to solve problems for themselves. Recently, Mr. Grossbauer stood back and encouraged Finn to figure out how to fetch a ball he had tossed into a milk crate nailed to a tree, just out of reach. After 20 minutes of frustration, and begging his dad to get it, Finn found a stool and retrieved the ball—a lesson in self-control and perseverance, Mr. Grossbauer says.
His wife, attorney Erin O’Callaghan, says her parenting style is different. Leaving Finn’s muddy clothes on the floor by the laundry room for hours “just doesn’t bother him the way it bothers me,” she says. Also, he lets the children “run and jump and climb and get themselves into precarious positions that I might not even allow,” she says. She is also more “ready to get involved” when one of her children is frustrated or starts crying, to comfort and guide them to a solution.
Kyle Pruett, a leading child-development researcher and co-author of a 2009 book, “Partnership Parenting,” says Mr. Grossbauer’s and Ms. O’Callaghan’s differences, typical for many couples, can benefit the children. Dads’ hands-off style tends to instill problem-solving ability, while the more engaged style typical of mothers often instills a sense of security and optimism, he says. (He cites cultural conditioning; the same behavioral differences show up in same-sex couples, he says.) Over the long term, having an involved father is linked in research to better self-control in children, less risky behavior and better grades, says Dr. Pruett, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.
Ms. O’Callaghan believes all the time outdoors with Mr. Grossbauer keeps her energetic son from going “stir crazy,” she says. And she suspects the fresh air and active play help both kids sleep better.
That fact still leads SAHDs, or those who spend a higher percentage of time than most in parenting, to feel a sense of isolation in their parental role. Unsurprisingly, that’s spurred a lot of fathers to form their own groups in which to compare notes on parenting, share the burden and lose the feeling that they’re the only fathers on the planet with primary childcare duties.
[One father] says he joined one of a growing number of dads’ groups to find other men like himself—men who aren’t “bumbling idiots like we are often portrayed.” His group, the 700-member NYC Dads Group on Meetup.com, sets play dates with other dads and holds a monthly “Dads Night Out” at sports bars or pool halls. The gatherings, along with running March Madness betting pools and other activities, help reclaim some of the lost camaraderie of office life, says co-founder Lance Somerfeld of Manhattan.So dads are not only bringing their masculine touch to child rearing, but making child rearing part of what it means to be a man. Hey, taking the kid to the skeet range or meeting other dads in pool halls and sports bars is about as ‘regular guy’ as it gets.
Similar groups are cropping up nationwide. The National At-Home Dad Network, an organization of groups in 69 cities, has 2,600 members and runs an annual convention. Members of Triangle Dads, a 150-member at-home fathers’ group in North Carolina, have been known to escape to the shooting range together where, says co-founder James Kline of Apex, N.C., they sometimes discuss the merits of different diaper brands while blasting away at clay targets with their shotguns.
I won’t let a single study or even two convince me that there’s no danger of fathers believing that the only “right” kind of parenting is the feminine kind. But for the time being, it looks like men and masculinity will survive our culture’s move toward new sex roles just fine, thank you.