© Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com
Pop culture under-appreciates dads. Sitcoms make fun of their diapering skills or portray dads as irresponsible babysitters who feed the kids pizza and ice cream while mom is out for the evening. Personal experience tells me there may a smidgen of truth in this. My own husband shows our kids zombie movies then acts surprised when they refuse to sleep with the lights out. Really.
Stereotypes aside, it can be hard to move past the mom-knows-best mentality and make room for dads’ different style of parenting. Tsara Shelton, a mom of four, says parenting together with her boys’ dad has been the biggest challenge in their happy, 13-year marriage. “I always want to be the one with the answers and insights,” she says. “But in truth, it has been co-parenting that has blessed my boys with the best of what both mom and dad have to offer.”
All moms can learn valuable lessons from what dads do best. Here are some things to watch.
DADS STRETCH THE CONCEPTS OF PLAY
Mud pies, building forts, and do-it-yourself science experiments are often dad’s domain for good reason. “They do messy fun really well,” says mom Wendy Valderrama. But there’s more to it than that.
Valderrama watches her 3-year-old daughter’s princess wedding ball with prince Daddy every night. “He lets her take the lead and follows right along with her in the imaginative play,” she says. When they aren’t entertaining kids on their own level, dads expose kids to grown-up tasks. A dad might teach a child how to mow the lawn or discuss financial matters during what amounts to informal apprenticeship sessions. Since dads aren’t focused on stages of development, they may share information that’s over a kid’s head. The upside?
“The conversations I overhear between my daughter and her dad are amazing. I see her processing concepts I wouldn’t have thought possible because I am stuck in a preschool mentality all day.”
DADS ENCOURAGE RISK-TAKING
While the protective instincts of most moms lead us to discourage kids from taking physical risks, studies show dads give kids more personal space to explore the environment, even if risk is involved. “At the park, I’m nervous about my 2-year-old going down the big slide, and, at home, I protect my baby from face planting very time he attempts to crawl,” says mom Anna Crowe. Dads often push kids to go outside their comfort zones.
Physical challenges help kids develop strength, coordination, and confidence. And, by testing their physical prowess, “kids learn valuable skills that could prevent them from getting into serious trouble in the future,” Crowe admits. Dads allow kids to learn by doing when moms might be more likely to teach by talking.
DADS SET BOUNDARIES
Because women are focused on preserving social connections, we may avoid family conflict. The mental and emotional effort of peacekeeping can lead to emotional exhaustion for women, according to research by psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University. Over time, minor frustrations can grow into deep, simmering resentments.
Tsara Shelton admits she struggles to establish clear, firm rules for her kids. She sees most issues as gray areas and enjoys discussing the connections between kids’ behaviors, social expectations, and cultural pressures. “If my hubby didn’t bring everything down to its simplicity I would get lost loving my children in the gray,” Shelton says.
While moms see kids’ behavior in shades of gray, dads may take a more black-and-white view. Men are less likely to shy away from conflict because they don’t take it personally. That means they step in and confront interpersonal issues head-on. Shelton’s two youngest sons — who had symptoms of autism at early ages — learned to be comfortable in their own bodies and minds because of their dad’s black-and-white boundaries. The key to parenting well is to figure out which situations require a firm, rule-based response and which ones call for deeper conversation.
DADS CAN BE IN THE MOMENT
Moms take pride in our super-human ability to do five things at once, but there is an undeniable downside. Multitasking prevents us from seizing the joys of the present moment. Men, who are not exactly renown for their multi-tasking abilities, bring a different dynamic with their tendency to focus intently on one thing.
For Lauren Nichols, that means her husband knows instinctively how to tune in with their 4-year-old. “I admire his ability to slow down and listen to everything our son has to say,” Nichols says. “It is as if he really remembers what it was like to be a little kid. They are two peas in a pod.” Lee Reed is inspired by her husband’s presence. While Reed, who calls herself “Helicopter Mom,” is busy multitasking, her husband knows how to be fully present, she says. “When he spends time with our daughter, he’s not worried about the laundry or paying the bills. He is all there.” Tuning in completely allows dads to see children as growing, loving little people. And it reminds us all that we’re blessed by our children — and their dads — in big and small ways every day.
— Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist, former educator, and mom of two. She is the author of Detachment Parenting.
by Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D.