By Elaine Heffner
“Father knows best” is long gone. But in an era of shifting gender roles, the maternalization of child care doesn’t make sense either. For Father’s Day, let’s celebrate the complementary role that both parents play, with separate but equally fine styles.
Credit: Wanda Dechant on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)–These days we expect a lot more of fathers.
As women have returned to the workplace, and the division of labor in families has changed, we have come to think about fathers as nurturers and caregivers as well as breadwinners. Some families have undergone role reversals, with mothers in the work force and fathers as primary caregivers.
As a result, fathers sometimes get the same scrutiny to which mothers have long been exposed.
Sometimes that scrutiny comes from mothers themselves, who are used to playing the major role in child-rearing (and certainly child care).
Despite their own anxieties, mothers may consider themselves the greater authority about their children–and fathers may agree with them.
For some time there has been a shift in the view of paternalism in child-rearing.
A reflection both of women’s liberation struggle and of points of view derived from child development research, “father knows best” went out the window long ago. But, unfortunately, part of the fallout of this shift has been the maternalization of child-rearing.
While self-assertion and an ability to take charge are lauded in the workplace, needed nurturing for children has been identified largely with feminine TLC.
Sometimes dads themselves feel inadequate about their child care abilities. Feeling this way can lead them to try to do things the way mom does them. Trying to imitate someone else can be very inhibiting.
One father who consulted me in my practice said he felt incompetent when caring for his son until he became aware that he was trying to follow exactly what his wife did. Once he realized this, he decided to do whatever came more naturally to him. Things were much better after that.
Fathers and mothers are also men and women who are known to approach things differently. Fathers often play with children differently from the way mothers do. They are more inclined toward physical activity and their interactions are likely to take that form. They can often tolerate or even encourage more daring behavior, such as climbing higher on the jungle gym in the playground. They often differ about whether certain behavior is acceptable and about appropriate discipline. These differences may, at times, lead to conflict between parents.
The thing to remember is that differences in approach do not mean that one person is right and the other wrong. Doing something differently doesn’t always mean doing it the “wrong” way.
Mothers sometimes think fathers are too “tough,” while fathers may see mothers as too “soft.”
But fathers and mothers each have something different to contribute to their children, and what each contributes has its own value. They function best as parents to their children when they hear and respect each other’s points of view. What this means is taking the other’s point of view into consideration. It is through this kind of mutual respect that children learn to respect both parents.
Fathers are learning how to be fathers–not mothers. Everyone learns best when praised for things done well, rather than criticized for doing it the “wrong way.”
Fathers and mothers each need the support and approval of the other, just as children do from both parents. Let’s use this Fathers’ Day to show that we appreciate the increasing role that fathers are playing in their children’s lives–and that we value the way they are doing it!
Dr. Elaine Heffner has written for Redbook, Parents Magazine and Disney online, as well as others. She has appeared on PBS, FOX, ABC and other networks and is author of “GoodEnoughMothering.” She is apsychotherapist, parent educator and senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She also co-founded and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs.