The difficulty in telling dad ‘I love you’

Story highlights

Difficulty expressing emotion toward a father results from socialized gender roles, researchers say

As definitions of fatherhood change, so do dads' relationships with their kids

Father's Day is an opportunity for dads and kids to grow closer

CNN  — 

In the days before Father’s Day, the messages in the greeting-card aisle are often different from the ones that greet shoppers before Mother’s Day.

One of Hallmark’s best-selling Father’s Day cards reads, “A good {dad} teaches you how to properly swing a hammer. A great {dad} teaches you what to yell when you smash your thumb. Thanks Dad, for all the lessons.”

Another says, “Home is where the fart is. Happy Father’s Day.”

By contrast, a top-selling Mother’s Day card reads, “Happy Mother’s Day, to my mom, my hero … I’m extremely proud of the wonderful woman I know and love as my mom.”

In other words, many Father’s Day cards are humorous and emotionally muted, while cards for mothers typically contain explicit messages of love. The difference speaks to the gender stereotypes that have long defined women as nurturers and men as managers who are disconnected from their emotions.

These lingering effects are still felt by children who struggle to share their feelings with their fathers the way they do with their mothers. Research shows that children are more likely to say “I love you” to their mom than their dad, said Dr. Linda Nielsen, professor of educational and adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University.

But with Father’s Day approaching on Sunday, this social stigma is slowly changing. As the notions of fatherhood evolve and fathers spend more time with their kids, the image of the stoic, distant dad is softening. And experts say kids can help hasten this trend by opening up to their fathers.

“Be an equal opportunity child,” Nielsen said. “You need to start treating your father the same way you treat your mother.”

Men, women and sharing emotions

In 1972, presidential candidate Edmund Muskie allegedly cried during a campaign press conference in New Hampshire. Reports conflicted about whether the moisture on his cheeks was melting snow, but some critics and voters saw it as evidence that he wasn’t strong enough to be president. The resulting criticism was credited with dooming the front-runner’s campaign.

Forty years later, President Barack Obama teared up during a speech about the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He received little ridicule, and many even praised the President for showing emotion. Likewise, nobody made a fuss in April when Obama said he cries thinking about his oldest daughter, Malia, leaving for college.

The difference between the Muskie and Obama examples shows how far society has come in accepting emotion from men as a sign of compassion, not weakness.

And yet long-held perceptions about parenting roles for fathers and mothers still die hard.

“Men and women are socialized differently in how they express their gender definition,” said psychologist and author Dr. Carl Pickhardt, who believes the difference reflects how kids are raised to perceive their gender.

In his work as a counselor, Pickhardt asks children which parent they associate most with the questions, “How are you feeling?” and “How are you doing?” Their answers, by an overwhelming majority: feeling and mothers, doing and fathers.

“Ideally, you want both parents to give emotional and performance expressions,” he said.

This is a result of parenting, said Dr. Peter Gray, associate professor of anthropology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Parents tend to develop their children to be successful in the social situations the parent exists in, he said.

Traditional positions for men have been in management or executive roles, where discussions about people’s feelings are not a priority. Wanting the best for their children, dads may not tolerate similar behavior at home. Over time, this can mean fewer emotional expressions by children toward their father, Gray said.

As fathers face new expectations to participate more in child care and housework, though, these barriers are slowly falling.

“Fathers’ roles are including more and more direct child care in the last 30, 40 years,” Gray said. “That opens doors to greater opportunities to connect.”

Modern fatherhood

A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that fathers have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend with their children since 1965. Shifting attitudes, an uncertain job market and a greater emphasis on work-life balance are beginning to shift the traditional parenting roles.

Adrian Kulp is a full-time, stay-at-home dad and writes the blog Dad or Alive. He is the primary caregiver for his three children, all younger than 6. While it was difficult for him to transition to this role from being an executive, he has seen firsthand a shift in perceptions.

“I’ve come into what modern fatherhood is,” Kulp said. “The face of fatherhood is changing, and I think it’s for the better.”

This new depiction of fatherhood is being broadcast nationwide by organizations such as Lean In. The women’s empowerment group used its #LeanInTogether campaign to change representations of fathers in stock photos, as shown in a new collection by Getty Images that shows men as involved parents.

As the public definition of fatherhood changes, so too do the ways in which fathers and children interact.

Kulp said that he has never had a problem showing emotion toward his father.

“Just an open, honest dialogue between father and son goes a long way,” he said.

Experts say establishing that father-child connection requires both parties to be open. It takes time, and sometimes a blunt conversation, often initiated by the child.

If sharing feelings with a father is too challenging, experts suggest children initiate a conversation with their dad about how hard it can be to express emotion. “Talk about what feels uncomfortable, unfamiliar or difficult,” Pickhardt said.

Kids can also show how they feel about their dad indirectly through a thoughtful gift or a planned activity, experts said.

Families can use Father’s Day as an excuse to treat dad to a special dinner, a movie or even a minivacation, which may open fathers and children alike to more emotional sharing.

The holiday should also be a day for serious reflection about parent-child relationships, Nielsen said. Fathers should think about how much they share emotions when talking to their kids. And children will feel more comfortable expressing their feelings if their fathers are doing it, too.

“The days of hiding your emotions are gone,” said Kulp, the stay-at-home dad. “Life is too short to hide your feelings.”