Imagine a reality show where two people are dropped into a weird and unfamiliar environment. They are given food, primitive tools and a boat. Separately, each receives a map and a compass, and they are told they must cooperate to paddle upriver to the headwaters, where a prize of incalculable value will be awaiting them. They are advised that each will suffer many hardships along the way — sleep deprivation, sickness, mutual hostility, personal rejection and a million fearful uncertainties, to name just a few.
Clearly, the setup here promises enough human suffering for even today’s jaded viewers. But just to make the show more interesting, the producers add a final twist. The maps and compasses they give each contestant are different. So as the pair paddle together, they will never agree on where they are, or where they are trying to go.
This is roughly the situation in which new parents find themselves. While the prospect of producing a child, then shepherding him through the first two decades of life seems to have an irresistible appeal for most young parents, the reality arrives like a bad dream.
James McHale of the University of South Florida studied young families beginning with pregnancy through the first 2½ years of their first child’s life. What he found surprised him. Even the best-prepared and most knowledgeable new parents were stunned by the levels of exhaustion, disappointment, conflict and loss of intimacy they experienced. Other long-term studies in both the United States and Europe indicate that marital happiness begins to decline with the birth of the first child and, as a rule, continues on a downward path roughly until that child becomes a teenager.
Some of this unhappiness results just because raising kids is a seriously difficult task. But much of it comes from the fact that, like the contestants in the reality show, no two parents have identical maps of the child-rearing terrain. They may be in passionate agreement about raising great children, but disagree on what a great child looks like. What happens, then, when each is deeply committed to following the path of good parenting, but their inner compasses about child rearing don’t line up, and the map each inherited from his or her own upbringing look nothing alike? What happens is, they fight.
A Conflict of Styles
After a long day of chasing Jacob around, feeding and diapering him, I’m trying to wind him down as the evening approaches. Then Joshua comes home and winds him back up, just when he should be going to bed. I know he means well, but he just doesn’t get it.
One of the most predictable — and least studied — determinants of a parent’s style is gender, something only a minority of parents have in common. But until recently, the male style of parenting — especially when kids are young — has been viewed as sort of a clumsy version of mothering. Dads don’t quite know how to talk to, or cuddle, or even hold an infant correctly — this was the general view of things, even among most experts. And dads’ interactions with their older children weren’t much better. Yes, a boy could learn football or golf from his dad when the time arrived, but mothers had natural child-rearing instincts for raising kids through early school age that a man could never hope to achieve. In recent years, as dads press for more participation from the earliest stages of infancy, this view of fathers as bumblers has caused conflict with couples.
It’s only in the last decade or so that researchers have seriously looked at parenting through the lens of gender. But what they have found is changing the child development landscape profoundly. And the new understanding of fathers’ and mothers’ differing influence shows promise for illuminating the gender-based conflict that arises between parents as they struggle with conflicting values and styles.
Fathers Do Not Mother
Just last week, at a gathering of families celebrating the departure of our kids for their first year of college, one friend, a mom with tears in her eyes, had this to say: “We started running after them when they took their first steps, holding them up, trying to keep them from falling. It’s going to be hard to stop.” This struck me as a perfect expression of what researcher and author Kyle Pruett describes as prototypical mom behavior.
While acknowledging the vast differences in parenting styles and philosophies among mothers (or fathers, for that matter), Pruett insists there are typical gender-based characteristics of parenting. Starting at a very young age, for instance, a child relates to her father as a locus of excitement and activity. In a classic piece of research from Harvard’s Michael Yogman, babies at 6 weeks were filmed interacting with each parent. As they were handled by their mothers, the infants’ heartbeat slowed, their shoulders relaxed and their eyelids sagged, as if saying, “Ahh ... Mom.” Responding to their father’s presence on the other hand, the infants’ heart rates picked up, their shoulders hunched and their eyes popped open. “Party time!” is how Pruett describes this response.
So while moms in general see their role as supporting, soothing and “holding them up” to prevent their young children from falling, dads often have a very different set of parental instincts. Fathering is likely to include more challenging, more aggressive and physical play, more active exploration of their environment, a more demanding conversational style, and allowing more space for the child to fail. Fathers interact with their infants more actively and provocatively, while moms are more soft and nurturing. As children mature, fathers are less compromising in their discipline, more conclusive and less likely to compromise or explain.
In Pruett’s parenting experiments with 3-year-olds, for instance, parents sit alongside their kids as they are challenged to solve a jigsaw puzzle. A mom will give subtle cues to help her child find the right piece. She might push a piece surreptitiously forward, for instance. Dads rarely do this, preferring to let the child discover the answer on her own. “Holding my child up” could be the central metaphor of successful parenting for many moms, while “helping my child to fly on her own” seems to capture the feelings of fatherhood.
Kids Need Both
That men and women parent differently, for whatever complicated reasons, is in most cases a great advantage for children. — Kyle Pruett in Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently — Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage
Many of the studies of mothering and fathering (including Pruett’s) were inspired by the controversy around parents’ roles after divorce. For years, child development research had focused almost exclusively on mothers. As a result, the law and the judicial system treated moms as the natural choice to provide caregiving during “the tender years.” But as fathers have become more and more involved in the lives of their children, they have pushed for more and more parenting time and decision-making authority after divorce.
This has turned out to be a painful shock for moms, who have argued that their ex-spouses didn’t really understand how to parent the kids. But when researchers like Pruett looked into it, what they found was that concentrated time with both parents — and both parenting styles — was better for the kids’ development.
Many of the parents my partner Laura and I encounter in our divorce mediation practice are still simply unaware that there are legitimately different, gender-based parenting styles. Instead, fathers are often angry about their ex-wife’s “spoiling” and “coddling,” while mothers accuse their former husbands of being too rough, or too rigid or too demanding.
The same accusations can be heard in still-married families, too. In fact, it’s pretty rare to encounter parents in my couple therapy practice who are not in some kind of conflict about their kids. Fortunately, as they begin to understand this more expansive version of “good parenting,” which includes fathering as well as mothering, couples often begin to embrace a more collaborative and complementary style, which immediately cuts down on the fighting. Almost all parents are highly motivated toward what’s healthy and good for their children. So, when mothers learn that the sterner discipline, unsettling spontaneity or unscheduled playfulness displayed by their husbands is actually good for their children, they sometimes soften their resistance. Conversely, as dads begin to see their spouses’ unconditional support as a healthy counterbalance to their own “let the chips fall” attitude, I see them soften, accept and sometimes even celebrate their complementary styles.
Happily, Pruett’s vision of “partnership parenting” is consistent with other major trends in society, especially fathers’ increasing involvement and women’s desire for significant careers. As a result, men’s contributions to child healthy development are being acknowledged both in family law courts, and in the treatment of couple conflict. More importantly, the prospects for harmony between moms and dads, at least in the domain of raising their children, are making a move in the right direction.
While the compasses and maps that partners use for parenting behavior will never be the same, when couples talk about, appreciate or even celebrate their differences rather than resist them, conflict decreases and happiness rises. This can only make the years spent navigating the tricky waters of parenthood a far smoother ride.
— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.