Fathers’ and Mothers’ Parenting Complementary, Important to Child Well-being

As we know, much of what family courts do seems aimed at separating fathers from children.  We see that in their 84% preference for maternal primary custody and their hesitancy at enforcing dads’ visitation orders.  We see it in their readiness to issue restraining orders on the thinnest evidence of abuse.  We see it in the draconian enforcement of child support.

But family courts aren’t the only ones to blame.  State legislatures that enact laws and fail to repeal others that frankly treat mothers and fathers differently are as well.  That’s true in adoption cases, paternity fraud cases and the like.  In all of those cases fathers have to clear a number of high hurdles just to get the same parental rights that mothers have automatically by virtue of their biological relationship to their children.

Then there’s the anti-dad crowd that will stop at nothing to keep fathers and children separate.  They stoop to rank untruths and distortions to try to convince lawmakers that dads are dangerous to and uninterested in children.

I’ve said all that before, but I’d like you to keep it in mind as you read this article (Wall Street Journal, 6/14/11).  The article is a nice pre-Fathers Day piece reprising a lot of the best information on how fathers care for children and how that helps the kids become resilient, healthy individuals.  I think it’s worth remembering all the ways in which our society, it’s law and culture seek to keep fathers separate from children when you read the WSJ piece.

After dinner at Todd and Jodie Schiermeier’s house in O’Fallon, Ill., it is “tackle Dad” time. That’s when Mr. Schiermeier gets down on the floor with their three children, Rylee, 7, Kinsey, 4, and Jace, 20 months, for a session of “horseback rides and pillow fights and tackle and wrestle,” he says.

It is a stark contrast to Ms. Schiermeier’s playtime with the kids, who says she mostly cuddles them or has “a little tickle fight.”

The rough play is already benefiting her older daughter, who is “a little timid,” Ms. Schiermeier says. “She has toughened up a little” playing with her dad. “He is teaching her how to take the blows of life, and to get in there and fight.” All three kids are learning to take turns and work as a team. For Mr. Schiermeier, that is intentional: “I push them to get outside their comfort zones.”

Writer Sue Shellenbarger understands the basic fact of parenting: mothers and fathers tend to parent differently, each tends to complement the other and the two together are needed by children to grow into well-rounded adults.  That most important concept should always be kept in mind by those making decisions about custody, but time and again, it seems that those judges, legislators, etc. seem to think fathers are expendable.  But,

The benefits of involved fathering are known: improved cognitive skills, fewer behavioral problems among school-age children, less delinquency among teenage boys and fewer psychological problems in young women, based on an analysis of 16 long-term studies of father involvement, published in 2008 in the scholarly journal Acta Paediatrica.

It turns out that even fathers’ greater tendency to go to work and earn has benefits to children in the way they parent.

As a result, fathers may be less familiar with their children’s nonverbal cues. Such dads tend to challenge children more to express themselves in words, helping foster the better cognitive skills researchers have found in 2-year-olds with involved fathers.

Parenting patterns may be rooted in neurological differences. Under stress, research shows, men’s brains are wired to respond to challenges physically, leaping into action. Women are more likely to withdraw or shut down.

Because fathers have had to learn to manage their own impulses to strike out or react physically to frustration, they may be better equipped than mothers to help children manage their own urges to behave badly, Dr. Pruett says.

Indeed, fathers typically aren’t as upset as mothers by kids’ tantrums or bad behavior, based on a 2009 survey of 1,615 parents by Zero to Three, a nonprofit child-development research and policy organization. Only half as many fathers as mothers say their children’s temper tantrums are one of their biggest challenges.

The differences in fathering and mothering begin early and persist.  Mothers tend to be more contemplative and in-turned.  That means they tend to talk problems over with their children.  Fathers often want to distract children from difficulties and encourage them to move on from whatever bothers them.

Of course neither is the right or wrong way.  On the contrary, both are necessary skills for coping with life and children who have both a mother and a father tend to demonstrate the sets of skills associated with each parent.

Since Callip and Christine Hall, who live in Cary, N.C., became parents nearly three years ago, they have noticed differences in their parenting. When their 2-year-old daughter, Ella, fell off her chair recently, Mr. Hall picked her up and carried her away from the table to distract her. He says he wants to teach her that “we’re not going to cater to the whimpering if she’s not really in pain,” and he sees Ella learning to shake off minor setbacks and move on.

“I’m more verbose,” Ms. Hall says. I would have immediately started saying, ‘Oh, Ella, tell Mommy what happened. Are you OK?’ ” she says. But while “my mothering instinct was to go over there and hover,” she says, she restrained herself while Ella cried for a few moments, then joined her husband to pat Ella’s back and soothe her.

Soon, “between efforts by both of us, we were able to get her to calm down,” Ms. Hall says. “Neither one of us thinks one way of parenting is right or wrong. It’s just different.” In the end, she adds, “we are complementary.”

It’s all very true and worth remembering.  It’s particularly worth remembering when yet another court informs us that the “best interests of the child” require that he/she sees dad at most every other weekend or not at all because an angry mother claims child abuse for the first time in their marriage during a custody fight. 

And it’s doubly worth remembering when the anti-dad crowd opposes an equal parenting law with the spurious claim that fathers, but not mothers, abuse their children.

The truth is there in the Journalarticle.  Fathers benefit children in ways that mothers tend not to, and vice versa.  Anyone who argues against greater father involvement with children argues that kids shouldn’t receive the benefits that fathers provide.

We should always remember that.

Thanks to Gordon for the heads-up.

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