Story Highlights•Many fathers' parenting approach differs from moms'
•Dads often let kids get more frustrated than moms do, to teach problem solving
•Experts: Don't stress about different styles; try to appreciate what works
By Emily Bloch
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It's right before bedtime and Sylvia is about to flip out about something -- that a page of her picture book is "broken" (read: torn, by her, days before) and that she can't have three more handfuls of popcorn after we said "one more."
Before I have a chance to ask, "What's wrong, Syl?" my husband walks up behind her, lifts her up into his arms, and carries her over his shoulder. "MAMA! NO! Mom-me-ee-ee!!!" she yells, upside down.
My eyes are shooting darts at Aron's back. By surprising her from behind, he's made it worse. He just barrels on in, not giving her a chance to calm down. Now she's never going to go to sleep. It's just so ...
And then, from upstairs, giggling. And then, the low murmur of story reading. And then, silence. And then a triumphant husband, breezing down the stairs, as if it were all a bunch of nothing. "What a sweetie she is," he says.
I learn this lesson at least once a week: I confuse Aron's parenting style with being "wrong." I apparently think, especially in my weaker moments, that he should do exactly as I do. But his way often works just as well as mine if not better.
And then I'm stuck in a brutal twist: If I thought he was wrong and his approach worked, does that mean he's right? And that would make me... Of course, this train of thought is likely to take me nowhere fast.
"It's not about copying your partner's style or his copying yours," says Rona Renner, host of the radio show Childhood Matters and a mom of four kids. "It's about appreciating the way he's different from you." So while we're not advising you to become clones of your partners, we do think dads often have some good tricks up their sleeves. Why not celebrate what they do right -- and maybe even try one of these tips yourself.
Lets kids take risks
"Our girls' adventures are incomprehensible to my wife," says Will Craig of New York City, dad of 4-year-old Radia and 2-year-old Lela. "She'll ask, 'Why did you climb the fence?' The answer is 'Because it's there.' I've always felt the girls need to try things. That doesn't mean I let them burn themselves on the stove, but if Lela is trying to stand up on her toddler chair to reach something and it's about to topple, I might let her feel that balance start to go before I pull her off." (Parenting.com: Little daredevils )
Why moms are different: Renner has a theory about why many mothers tend to flinch when their kids are on the monkey bars: "Moms form a protective attachment to their babies during pregnancy, when we're so focused on having a healthy and safe child that we give up all sorts of risky behavior ourselves. I think some of the instinctive protectiveness comes from this."
"If kids don't experience somewhat risky physical fun, it might make them more cautious and less willing to try things they haven't quite mastered yet," says Kyle Pruett, Ph.D., a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale University and author of "Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child.
"You have to fall down in order to learn to ice-skate. If you're afraid of falling down, you won't learn."
Dealing with the difference: Tolerate only what you're comfortable with. But when I see Sylvia playing with Aron or running around outside, I try to ask myself: Is she really in danger, or is it just hard for me to watch? Would a stumble from where she is truly harm her, or just hurt a little bit? Or do as my friend Laurie does and remove yourself from the situation. For instance, when she and her family are at the beach, she literally turns her chair around to face away from the water because although she knows her kids are safe with their dad, it makes her nervous to watch them play in the waves.
Trusts himself more than the experts
"My wife can be a little anal about following advice, but I'm more likely to feel that we know what's best for us," says Clark Avery of San Francisco, California, dad of 14-month-old Andee. "I go back to: If you're asking me to do something different from what I normally do, is there proof to show why the new way is better? If not, then it's just a matter of opinion." (Parenting.com: Love and instinct )
Why moms are different: Renner says that this is a typical split (after all, guys won't ask for directions, either): "Women are more sensitive to getting it 'right,' since it used to be if anything's wrong with the child, the mother's to blame. Also, they tend to compare notes with other parents more than dads do."
Dealing with the difference: There's a time and place to get help and information from others, but it's also good to have the confidence to rely on your own instincts. In the end, no one knows your kids better than you. The last time I took Sylvia to get her ears checked for an infection, the doctor said, "She doesn't have one yet, but with her history, I think you should fill the prescription now and give it to her when it's gotten worse." That's when I decided to be more like Aron and not follow her advice (at least this time). Because I'm less concerned with being "right" in the eyes of the authority figure these days than I am with doing what's right for my child (even if it means I have to drag her back, screaming, for another ear check).
Ignores the details
"I dress my daughter often," says Al Weiss of Tinton Falls, New Jersey, dad of 11-month-old Elisabeth. "I might put certain clothes on backward because I can't find a tag. My wife will say, 'This goes with that.' But as long as my daughter is warm and happy, I am too." (Parenting.com: The daddy-baby connection )
Why moms are different: "Moms' routines and standards probably spring from their feeling the responsibility for everything to be perfect," Renner says. "And let's face it, no one is thinking, 'Why did her dad dress her in that?'"
Dealing with the difference: I probably care more about how Sylvia looks than I do about myself (scratch that: I definitely care more about Sylvia). But I've been able to strike this deal with Aron: On the days when he's doing kid duty, he gets complete dibs on her wardrobe, and I say nothing.
Acts like a kid
"We'll set up imaginary football fields, and just play ball forever," says Rob Jarosh of Cheyenne, Wyoming, who devotes plenty of silly time to his 3-year-old son, Xander. "Or he'll walk around with a wooden spoon and pretend he's singing into a microphone -- he'll give me a cardboard paper-towel roll and have me pretend it's a trumpet."
Why moms are different: Goofing off does seem to come easier to many dads. Seeing their parents feel free enough to be wacky, without concentrating on schedules or how long it takes food to cook, can be a valuable lesson for kids, says Renner, who thinks moms still bear most of the burden for making sure the house is clean, dinner is on the table, and the kids are on schedule.
Dealing with the difference: Since feeling responsible for everything doesn't leave much room for fun, try reversing the roles a little. If your husband can't cook dinner a couple of times a week, make a simple meal of sandwiches and use the extra time to have fun with your kids. I know I can get too absorbed with getting to the next task, but I'm learning that being silly can do wonders in getting Sylvia to do what I want -- like the times I race her to the end of the block when she doesn't want to walk. And with any luck I'm showing her that humor can be a great way to deal with difficult situations.
Waits before he jumps in
"I'm willing to let Ava cry or fuss a little longer than my wife is," says James Bolton of Oakland, California, of their 7-month-old. "If I'm taking a shower and I hear her cry while she's sitting there in her bouncy seat, I'll peek out to see if she's in distress. If she's not, I tell her I'm almost done. But when my wife is showering and hears her cry, she'll get out and grab her."
Why moms are different: "Dads often let their children get more frustrated than moms will," says Pruett. "They seem to feel it's important for kids to learn to sort out problems on their own. It's the way dads prepare their kids for the real world."
Dealing with the difference: Although it may look like your husband doesn't care as much as you do about your child, he does. He just doesn't talk about it. In the real world that means that the next time the baby cries, let him deal with it his way (just put in earplugs). As long as you trust that your kids are OK, it's better for them (and for you!) to occasionally keep your protective instincts under wraps.
Doesn't make a big deal over every battle
"As opposed to the way my wife deals with it, I'd rather not force Xander into a bath when he doesn't want to take one, and then have to deal with his screaming and crying," says Jarosh. "So I'll set something up like, 'Do you want to tackle Daddy one more time or two more times before the bath?'" (Parenting.com: Routine matters )
Why moms are different: "Fathers generally avoid emotional head to head with kids," says Pruett. "Moms are more likely to think 'If you love me, you'll do what I say.' Dads tend to think they're going to lose those battles. So they tease or divert -- they can get their kids to do what they need them to do without making it a life-or-death matter." Another big reason dads can be more flexible: If they're not around all day, every day, they may not be as worried about sticking to a routine as moms are.
Dealing with the difference: Knowing this about dads has helped me recognize that when I descend into a battle of wills with Sylvia, it's a choice I'm making -- there are other options available. Instead, I'll sometimes sneak in the dreaded activity (getting her coat on, for instance, or strapping her into the car seat) once I've plied her with raisins or a favorite book.
Lately, I've noticed that a funny thing happens when I lay off the judgment: Aron and I are more likely to be open to trying the other's approach. That means that he might read about toddler behavior, or I'll make a game out of brushing Sylvia's teeth, instead of gritting mine. So on Father's Day, I think I'm going to inaugurate our first annual Sometimes, Every Once in a While, Whaddya Know -- Father Actually Does Know Best Day, and follow his lead. At least for the day.
Emily Bloch also writes for Real Simple and Marie Claire.
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