When it comes to raising children, most of the focus is on mothers. But a growing body of research shows that fathers play an essential, but often undervalued, role in a child’s development.
Uninvolved fathers have long been accused of lacking motivation. But research shows that many societal obstacles conspire against them. Even as more fathers are changing diapers, dropping the children off at school and coaching soccer, they are often pushed aside in ways large and small.
“The walls in family resource centers are pink, there are women’s magazines in the waiting room, the mother’s name is on the files, and the home visitor asks for the mother if the father answers the door,” said Philip A. Cowan, a professor of psychology at the University of California, who along with his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan, has conducted decades of research on families. “It’s like fathers are not there.”
As much as mothers want their partners to be involved with their children, experts say they often unintentionally discourage men from doing so. Because mothering is their realm, some women micromanage fathers and expect them to do things their way, said Marsha Kline Pruett, a professor at Smith College and a co-author of the new book “Partnership Parenting,” with her husband, child psychiatrist Dr. Kyle Pruett.
Yet a mother’s support of the father turns out to be a critical factor in his involvement with their children, experts say — even when a couple is divorced.
In recent years, several fathers’ rights organizations have offered father-only parenting programs and groups, and studies have shown that these help men become more responsive and engaged with their children.
Fathers tend to do things differently, Dr. Kyle Pruett said, but not in ways that are worse for the children. Fathers do not mother, they father.
Dr. Kyle Pruett added: “Dads tend to discipline differently, use humor more and use play differently. Fathers want to show kids what’s going on outside their mother’s arms, to get their kids ready for the outside world.” To that end, he said, they tend to encourage risk-taking and problem-solving.
The study was financed by the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention, which is looking for ways to involve fathers more at the state’s many family resource centers. Experts say improving the way fathers are treated in many settings, public and private, is an important public health goal.
For example, they say, pictures of families on the walls of clinics and public agencies should have fathers in them. All correspondence should be addressed to both mother and father. Staff members should be welcoming to men. Steps like these promote early and lasting involvement by fathers.
At home, the experts recommend that couples keep talking about parenting issues and do their best to appreciate each other’s strengths. A recurring argument among couples is that each partner thinks he or she knows what is right; a mother may accuse the father of allowing too much television, while a father may tell a mother she isn’t strict enough with discipline.
Institutional sexism is damaging the educational prospects and social development of children, according to a new study. The study, by Children North East, says subconscious practices disregard the needs of men and fails to recognize the role of fathers.
Joy Higginson, director of Children North East said: “Fathers are important for families, yet almost all formal support to parents is offered only to mothers – with deep-seated sexism in social and health services actively discriminating against men.
“This flies in the face of evidence which shows pre-school children whose fathers are actively engaged and accessible are more competent, more empathetic, more self confident, and less stereotyped in their gender roles.”
Recently, Lifetime TV, a network known for its movies about women being endangered by men, sank to a new low – they bought a new reality show called “Deadbeat Dads.”
The show “Deadbeat Dads” centers around National Child Support founder Jim Durham, who finds and confronts dads who do not pay their child support. Reuters news agency reports that Mr. Durham “functions as sort of a ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ for tracking deadbeats … it’s ambush reality TV.”
The reality show, originally developed at Fox as “Bad Dads” and later dropped, was Lifetime’s attempt to take cheap shots at men who were mostly “down on their luck” financially, while ignoring the damage the show could cause children, wives and other family members.
Thanks to a national write-in protest, Lifetime TV has yet to air the program.
By the way, more than 90 percent of fathers with joint custody paid the support due, according to a Census Bureau report. So deadbeats are in the minority. Also, most so-called deadbeat dads actually are dead broke. Two-thirds of men who fail to make child-support payments earn poverty-level wages, according to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Most of the others are unemployed.