On Psychology

Jewish World Review July 15, 1999 /2 Av, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

NEWS FLASH! Mothers and Fathers Are Different

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I get very frustrated whenever I hear or read a so-called parenting expert assert that Moms and Dads are -- or should be -- interchangeable in the lives of children. Dad is NOT mom. In our home, I pretty much handled the nuts and bolts of child-rearing during our children's earliest years. Dad's interest and involvement grew as our sons did. The fact that he wasn't as involved as I was with our sons when they were infants is NOT an indication of a bad father. What do you think?

A: One of the kookiest ideas that ever came out of modern psychology is that males and females are the same, or at least, ought to be. This nutty idea grew its deepest roots with the advocates of androgyny.

Growing out of concern for achieving greater social equity between men and women, androgyny advocates preached that men and women not only ought to be treated exactly the same, but ought to behave exactly the same as well.

Social psychologist Sandra Bem was particularly influential in spreading the gospel of androgyny, arguing that persons freed from traditional sex-role behavior would be better adjusted, more adaptive, and psychologically healthier. By 1980, 72 percent of mental health professionals described a "healthy, mature, social competent" adult as androgynous.

Econophone The ideal of androgyny quickly spilled over into parenting advice. Since, it was reasoned, there are no differences between men and women, there ought not to be any differences between moms and dads either. In fact, they asserted, moms and dads should be so identical, that their children literally would not know whether it was their mom or dad in the room, nor would they care. Even the terms mom and dad should be discarded for the more neutral sounding "parent" or, better yet, "caregiver."

To achieve the ideal of androgynous parenting it was men in particular who had to be retrained. As James Garbarino, the president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, wrote at the time: "To develop a new kind of father, we must encourage a new kind of man. In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins asks, 'Why can't a woman be more like a man?' It's time to ask the opposite question. 'Why can't a man be more like a woman?'"

Androgyny became the basis of the New Nurturing Father ideal, in which a good father was defined as a man who shares equally in all childrearing activities from the moment of birth. The New Nurturing Father was expected not only to cry at movies, but to change precisely one-half all the diapers and to be as adept at fixing his baby's formula as he is at fixing a flat tire.

This, of course, is nonsense. The fact that moms and dads, at least in some ways, do things differently is not evidence of a misguided society, but of a healthy family.

For example, since the beginning of history, dads have been observed to be more physical than moms in their interactions with their kids, something psychologists call "rough and tumble" play. When I was in graduate school in the 1970's, the androgynists exhorted me to tell dads to cut it out.

Why? Well, the reason was obvious. Little boys are more aggressive than little girls, and since these differences can't be due to any innate differences (since there are no innate differences between little boys and little girls, right?), these differences must have been taught. Who was teaching this? Why the dads, of course, with all that aggressive play! Have the dads stop that roughhousing, and those differences will disappear!

Well, not exactly. In fact, new research suggests that little boys who are lucky enough to have fathers who roughhouse with them are actually better at controlling their aggression than those whose dads do not roughhouse with them. That's because if the little boy gets too rambunctious and starts to hit or bit, dad tells him to cool it. In this way, sons learn how to control -- not act out -- their aggressive impulses.

The androgyny advocates have another goal: 50/50 parenting. The idea is that moms and dads should each be doing precisely 50 percent of the diapers, 50 percent of the burping, and 50 percent of the bathing. Special allowance is made for the fact that men can not be expected to do 50 percent of the breastfeeding -- although I'm sure some androgyny advocate somewhere is working to overcome even that little biological obstacle!

One area where you see this 50/50 idea play out is the popular lament that dads are less likely than moms to take extended time off from work after the birth or adoption of a child. True equality, some assert, will come about only when dads are as likely to take paternity leave as moms are to take maternity leave.

But the fact is that in most cases both paternity and maternity leave are unpaid. Unless your name is Rockefeller or Gates, it's unlikely that you can afford to have no income -- especially after a new baby is born. Most families have to have at least one person continuing to bring home a paycheck.

In most families, that person is the dad; not because he doesn't care about his new baby or thinks the mom should do all the childrearing, but because he loves his baby and wife so much, that he is willing to continue to work to provide for their welfare. To me, that sounds like a saint, not a sinner.

The point is this: When it comes to parenting, moms and dads need to act like a team. You'd have a pretty lousy team if everyone insisted on playing the same position. Instead, the best teams are those which position their players so as to take advantage of their unique strengths and then work together to achieve a common goal. The same is true for good parenting.


JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn