I'm Asking Dad!

By Jim McGaw<

Do dads do it differently?

By now, we know about the benefits that active fathers bring to their children’s lives. But do dads really parent so differently than moms when it comes to doling out advice or tending to their children’s problems? Often times, yes, but whether it’s a matter of mere gender is up for debate.

Marc and Roger Rousseau are brothers who live within 10 minutes of each other. But geography and a sibling relationship aren’t the only things they have in common. Between them, they’re raising five girls, ranging in age from 10 to 16, and the issues they confront as fathers aren’t always sugar, spice and everything nice.

It’s not always smooth sailing for fathers of boys, either. Jim Merkey recalls the time he was put on the spot when a bully kicked his son during a football game.

And Henry Biller remembers trying to help his young son when it became apparent that prejudice kept one of the boy’s best friends from being invited to a birthday party.

Welcome to fathering in the 21st century, where dads are hardly isolated from the day-to-day child-rearing problems of bullies and cliques, academic troubles, body changes, female hormones and dating. As moms and dads continue to have more equal and involved parenting roles than in the past, fathers handle just as many of their children’s “growing pains” as mothers do. And the many benefits of having a strong, involved father figure – including higher self-esteem, girls who exceed at math and children with fewer gender stereotypes – have been well-documented.

We know from child development experts how fathers react differently to infants and toddlers: they’re more likely to let their children explore and take risks, for example. But what about when kids get older and start facing problems with peers, academics or dating? Do fathers give their children different advice, support or comfort than mothers? In many cases, definitely. But just how much of a role gender plays in those differences is up for debate.

Problem Solvers

Kyle Pruett, a nationally renowned psychiatry professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center and Medical School and the author of Fatherneed, says situations vary, but his studies have found that dads generally do handle conflicts differently.

“Take the bully problem,” Pruett says. “Fathers are more tolerant than mothers, in general, in letting their children handle their own frustrations and deal with the expectations of the world. A mother is more willing to examine the social relationships involved to try to find out who’s right and who’s wrong. The father is more interested in solving the problem and helping his kid figure out how to avoid being bullied again.”

Yet Pruett is quick to point out – as are other fathering experts – that these are generalizations. The opposite is often true, he says. “I know fathers who would do exactly what the mothers would normally do and mothers who would take the ‘father’ approach.”

Biller, a psychology professor and author of several books on fatherhood, agrees that dads usually push their kids to be independent.

“I think on average the dads would probably be more likely to encourage their children, particularly a boy, to handle the situation,” he says. “Certainly if it was something about being teased or being pushed around, they would say, ‘Well, you should speak up about it.’”

Fathers, Biller says, are not “as tuned in” about a child’s feelings as mothers are. “Moms have a tendency to get more emotional, more worried about it and be more protective,” he says. “I think fathers tend to provide more of a ‘thinking-things-through approach’ in a problem-solving way.”

As an example, Biller recounts a poignant incident more than 30 years ago when his oldest son was in the first grade. Biller, who is white, says his son was very tight with two other boys, one of whom was black. His son was invited to a very elaborate birthday party thrown by the family of the other white boy, but the black boy was not invited.

“My son got very concerned,” Biller says. “I knew the other boy was black and that might be the reason. I said to my son, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do, but we’ll find out and then it will be your decision.’”

Biller called up the father who issued the invitation, saying he was curious why the other boy was not invited. “We invite who we want,” was the curt response.

“My son was not comfortable about it and he didn’t go. I said, ‘If you want, we can invite Robert (the black boy) over,’ and that’s what we did. It was a learning experience about life,” says Biller.

Image Conscious

The perceived consequences that may result from a child’s conflicts with peers can also differ between mother and father, says Jack Miller, who directs a fathers and family network.

“If my children had a problem with a friend, my wife would look at the relationship itself and how it affects the other person,” says Miller, who has a son in high school and a daughter in college. “I don’t disagree with that, but I think men tend to look more at how the situation might be perceived by others and how the child may look to the community at large.”

Jim Merkey says this was one of his concerns when his 11-year-old son was hurt during an athletic event.

“Justin was playing football and one of the guys was being a bully and kicked him. I told him, ‘The first time you can turn the other cheek and try to talk your way out of it, but after that you have my permission to defend yourself.’” Merkey notes that his wife would have talked to the other boy’s mother instead.>

Bernie Dorsey says his 8-year-old son’s social standing is often his main focus when a problem arises. "Take a nose picker, for example. I will say, 'Hey, if you keep picking your nose, you won’t have any friends.' But my wife will tell him that he’ll have dirt in his nose and that he’ll pass germs. What I will point out is how it will affect his standing with other kids."

Is it Gender or Personality?

But while some dads see their role along more gender-characteristic lines, other parents don’t buy the notion that men and women possess strong, inherent differences in parenting styles.

“I’ve never seen it as a gender thing. I see it as a difference in personality or style,” says Theresa Rousseau, a mother of three daughters.

Her husband, Marc, agrees, adding that differences in parenting styles have more to do with a person’s background or even his or her role at work.

“Theresa is a more spontaneous, reactive person, while I stay back,” Marc says. “I try to gather the facts and that makes Theresa crazy sometimes. I have more of a managerial style.”

In his job as a hospital pharmacy manager, Marc deals with people bringing him problems all the time. “I don’t react right away until I find out more about it,” he says. “Theresa reacts a lot more passionately than I do.”

For her part, Theresa believes that her job as a K-8 behavior intervention teacher might account for her different approach to parenting.

"I have to do a lot of on-the-spot thinking at my job,” she says. “If there are kids acting real volatile or whatever, I have to have an answer right then and there, and that’s what people call upon me for. That approach is probably similar to the approach I take at home.”

Marc’s brother, Roger, believes a parent’s own upbringing influences parenting style. He and his wife, Ann, have two girls, Melissa, 10, and Nicole, 16.

“Ann can be more nurturing, but not because we have preconceived notions of that,” he says. “Ann’s family background makes her more open to communication. I come from a very staunch and conservative family, while Ann comes from a very large Catholic family, and that cultural difference has more of an impact on our family.”

Biller agrees that contrasting parenting styles aren’t always about gender. “The kind of fit of personality and temperament between the parents and children may transcend the gender issues,” he says. “What is good for a particular kid and family may not be for another.”

Kids Pick and Choose

Not surprisingly, the different approaches each parent takes often dictate which one a child will seek out. Marc and Theresa Rousseau’s 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, freely admits that whom she turns to is based on the response she thinks she’ll get.

"It depends on the problem. If it’s a ‘girl problem,’ I go to my mom. I would never talk to dad about Tyler (her boyfriend). But if it’s about drugs or something that I know my mom doesn’t like, I’ll go to my dad,” she says. “He doesn’t tell me not to hang out with them, but to not do what they’re doing.”

It’s the same when kids get hurt, according to Carmelo and Lyn Quijanos, who have two children, Christopher, 9, and Diana, 7.

“If they’re in a lot of pain, they’ll go to Carmelo because he gives them so much more sympathy,” says Lyn, perhaps debunking another gender stereotype. “If Diana hurts herself and she’s with me, she doesn’t make a big deal about it. But as soon as she sees her dad, she bursts into tears. They get the whole ‘Hey baby!’ factor.”

Robert Frank, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., has done extensive research on involved fathers, and he believes this pick-and-choose approach is good for kids because it promotes independence.

“Getting two different opinions gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I don’t like that answer, so I’ll go to the other parent.’ As long as mom and dad are on the same page as far as the outcome goes, there shouldn’t be a problem,” Frank says.

Dads Learn from Moms, Family

Fathers may have a different style than mothers, but they’re not averse to looking for ways to improve their parenting skills. And, more often than not, the moms serve as their teachers.

“I think part of being a father is recognizing how much we have to learn about being fathers,” says Dorsey, recounting a recent lesson he learned from his wife. “I have a tendency to encourage my son not to overreact, say, if he gets hurt. My wife will tolerate him behaving like he’s amputated a limb, when he has just skinned his knee. I’d tell him to react in a way that parallels the level of injury. ‘You don’t have to cry so loud,’ I’d say. What he heard was, ‘Don’t cry.’

“The next week he comes home from school with his knees all cut up and his pants torn. He had been to the school nurse and everything. I scooped him up and gave him a big hug. Then he said to me, ‘Yeah, Dad, but I didn’t cry.’”

Dorsey says the incident made him feel guilty and taught him to lighten up on his son a bit.

Marc Rousseau says his wife has taught him to be a better hugger. “I didn’t come from a physically demonstrative family, while Theresa did,” he says. “I don’t hug Mel or reign her in as much as I should. I think I miss the cues when Mel wants a hug and Theresa is good about coaxing me to do that.”

A father’s own parents are often a source of inspiration, as well. Roger Rousseau, who acknowledges having a deep, loud voice that often scares his two girls, says his father has taught him to take a more thoughtful approach to>/span>/div>br>div>span class="text1">“I think about when I was a kid and my dad would call me in for ‘The Talk,’ this deep conversation where you say to yourself, ‘Oh, I feel like jumping out a window.’ But now I have a deeper appreciation for him taking a slow, reflective approach.”

Fathers Don’t Mother

While many of today’s dads are making more of an effort to connect with their kids than dads of past generations, Pruett stresses that “we have not witnessed men turning into mothers.”

“Are those men communicating with their children more because they’re spending more time with them? Yes. But are they talking mother language? No,” he says.

The key to fathering in a nurturing way – one that invites children to approach you with their emotions or problems – is to be available and open, Pruett says. “Kids don’t share emotions with those who don’t share back. If a mother is more open to listen, they’ll go to the mom.”

And differences in parenting styles shouldn’t be a problem for couples who are committed to the same goals for their kids. “There’s plenty of room for newer or different styles of parenting, and there’s no reason to assume men cannot handle these things as well,” says Pruett.

Dorsey, who runs a support program for new dads called Conscious Fathering, agrees. “I really believe men cannot mother and moms cannot father. I’m firmly of the mind that whether you’re a mother or a father, you’re equally as capable of nurturing another human being. Dads can be good nurturers, we just do it differently.”



Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child,by Kyle D. Pruett, M.D., Broadway Books, 2001. Explores why the differences in the way fathers parent is important to a child’s development.

Fathers and Family, by Henry B. Biller, Auburn House, 1993.  Analyzes the advantages to a child when the father, as well as the mother, actively participates in the parenting process.

Parenting Partners: How to Encourage Dads to Participate in the Daily Lives of Their Children, by Robert Frank and Kathryn Livingston, Golden Books Publishing Co., 2000. Shows how to achieve fair-share parenting, covering some of the most common conundrums of childcare.

The Fatherhood Project, Families and Work Institute, New York, N.Y., 212-465-2044; National research and education project examining the future of fatherhood and ways to support men’s involvement in child rearing.

National Center for Fathering, Kansas City, Mo., 800-593-DADS; Conducts research on fathering to develop practical resources and support for dads.

National Fatherhood Initiative, Gaithersburg, Md., 301-948-0599; Works to improve children’s well-being by increasing the proportion of kids growing up with involved and responsible fathers.

Jim McGaw is a freelance writer and a father of two boys.

From United Parenting Publications, June 2003