As I’m embarking on my personal journey into fatherhood, it seems that the roles of a modern man/dad are also transforming and old stereotypes of what it means to be a husband and a father are being challenged.
I’ve heard someone say that almost any man can father a child, but there is so much more to the important role of being dad in a child’s life. I can relate to that. I’ve been in a relationship with my wife, MJ, for twelve and a half years and now when she’s 7 months pregnant, I already feel that becoming a father carries different type of responsibility to that of a boyfriend or a husband.
This transition has already affected my choices, my behavior and priorities in life. I even volunteered to attend childbirth classes (I say I volunteered, in reality MJ said she wouldn’t go alone). Anyways this has been a huge confidence boost for me (and for her). There aren’t too many men in those classes. Granted, fathers may feel awkward at first showing up as a ‘minority’ parent. They may feel they are “too busy” to get involved (believe me, I had quite a few objections myself at first). But the benefits outweigh any potential excuses. All of this hasn’t happened overnight, and I’m sure I’m not “there” yet, but I’m committed and willing to undertake this relationship with my unborn child.
Fathers in media
There seems to be this new wave that encourages fathers to be actively involved in their children’s lives, there are plenty of research articles online that talk about the importance of dads in children’s development. However, often times these young men still hit barriers from employers, the media and the society.
It’s almost like the western culture has a blind spot when it comes to the role of men in families. It’s the belief that men’s importance in family life is secondary. Therefore we all kind of expect men to be secondary. And it’s not surprising that this attitude plays itself out in many ways in our culture: especially in entertainment business and in media.
A lot of young men (including yours truly) grow up with TV sitcoms and animated shows that portray dads as misguided large man-children (not to say lazy, incompetent and stupid) whose wives have to mother them as well as their off-springs. I understand that humor is important in life, including in parenting, but if the (only) role models young men have are Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Al Bundy, Ray Romano to name a few, there may be room for worry. That’s dangerous because it’s going to set up guys who have unhealthy expectations about fatherhood and manhood in general.
I want to encourage dads (and soon-to-be dads) to be involved, and have fun with fatherhood in a way that doesn’t minimize, stereotype and judge us as — at best — well-meaning but second-class parents? After all, there is plenty of research out there that supports dads’ involvement.
Reasons to be an involved father
Fathering expert Dr. Kyle Pruett explains that fathers have a distinct style of communication and interaction with children. Fathers parent differently than mothers – they play, communicate and discipline differently. Erik Erikson, a pioneer in the world of child psychology, goes even further and says that father’s love and mother’s love are qualitatively different. Father’s love is more “expectant, more instrumental” than mother’s love. Therefore dads bring their own unique contributions when it comes to parenting.
Here are some research-backed reasons why and how can I have a positive difference in my baby’s life.
Child’s motor development
2010 research (Gestwicki) reveals that six-month-olds whose fathers are involved in their care score higher on tests of motor development. Fathers tend to play more one-on-one, rough and tumble games with their children, which encourages large motor development, lets children explore what their bodies can do, and helps them learn to regulate their emotions when engaging in impulsive physical contact (Rosenberg & Wilcox, 2006).
Child’s language development
Fathers are more likely to speak in ways that challenge their child’s developing language abilities and teach them about social communication exchanges (Lamb, 2010). Since fathers tend to use more “w” questions (what, when, why, where, who, which) and more requests for clarification than mothers, they encourage conversation (Rowe, Cocker, & Pan, 2004), and therefore the children have greater language skills by the age of three (Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2006).
Child’s intellectual development
A number of studies suggest that fathers who are involved, nurturing, and playful with their infants have children with higher IQs, as well as better linguistic and cognitive capacities (Pruett, 2000, as cited in Rosenberg & Wilcox, 2006). School aged children of involved fathers are also better academic achievers, and are more likely to get A’s (Nord & West, 2001).
Child’s social-emotional development
Quality father-and-child time increases self-esteem, confidence, social competence, and life skills (Amato, 1994; Dubowitz et al., 2001).
Even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure and confident to explore their surroundings, they have higher self-esteem, and as they grow older, have better social connections (Yeung, Duncan & Hill, 2000). Being involved also helps kids be more popular later on in life – studies suggest that children who have more involved fathers are also more sociable and popular with other children throughout early childhood. (Pruett, 2000; Lamb, 2002).
Benefits for the dad
Finally, being an involved (soon-to-be) dad brings benefits to men themselves. Taking part in childbirth classes, communicating with the unborn child and helping my wife with chores has raised my own belief in my parenting abilities. It has already dawned on me that being a parent involves huge costs in commitment, time and money etc. Then again, there’s also research that shows that fathers who are involved in their children’s lives are more likely to exhibit greater psycho-social maturity, be more satisfied with their lives (Eggebean & Knoester, 2001), feel less psychological distress (Ozer, Barnett, Brennan, & Sperling, 1998), are more able to understand themselves and emphatically understand others. That sounds fair return on my investment.
Becoming a father puts a lot of (internal as well as external) pressure on men. Even though the expectations of men within our society aren’t always up to par, this new chapter in life brings new (read: higher) expectations.
The benefits listed here are really only a few of the major research findings from studies of families with involved father. That doesn’t mean you need to hurry in with your resignation letter next Monday. You don’t need to be a stay-at-home dad in order to be engaged. Research has found that the value of father involvement is determined by the quality of the interaction between dads and their children – for example, a father’s responsiveness to the needs of his child – rather than the amount of time fathers spend with their children (Palkovitz, 2002). So instead of watching another rerun on TV, get down on the carpet and spend some quality time with your little progeny. I don’t know if I can be a good father, but I know I can do THAT (spend some quality time together).
Bonus material! I promised you bonus material every time and today is no exception!
For those who found most of this post too overwhelming to digest, then just try to adopt Chris Rock’s parenting philosophy – his main goal is to keep his daughter off the pole.