Fathers: Understanding the Role Dads Play

In generations past, we tended to think of fathers as the support act in parenting. Sure he was important but hey, the real job of raising the children was up to the mother wasn’t it? Fortunately, that view has been long been replaced with a far greater appreciation of the role dads play. And to celebrate the different ways they care for their children in comparison with mothers. 

There are many reasons for this shift in acknowledging dads – feminism brought into sharp focus the unfairness of domestic task allocation and the burden on women of doing most of the housework and child rearing. In essence, dads needed to do more and be fairer about the whole family thing.

There’s also been a surge in women pursuing their own careers and successfully combining parenting and work. And importantly, there’s been a groundswell of research into the true value of fathers, and how important it is for kids to have him involved.  

5 Things we know to be True

  1. Men and women parent in unique and different ways.
  2. Because of physical differences in shape and size, men hold, soothe, nurture and comfort their children differently to women. Their voice tends to be deeper as well, so verbal soothing and shshing takes on a different cadence. Not only what dads say isn’t the same, but the way they say it is unique as well.
  3. Fathers often miss out on receiving support and guidance with parenting. There is an inequity of services and help which target dads in their parenting role. Essentially, there’s heaps around for women but little for dads.
  4. Children quickly work out the path of least resistance when it comes to getting what they want. Although differences are beneficial, it’s still important to give consistent and unified messages with discipline and boundary setting.
  5. Fathers who are supportive of breastfeeding make a really positive difference, especially when breastfeeding is challenging.

What’s the Difference Anyway?

Research has shown that when mothers play with their children they often come from more of an educational leaning. For example they may say “Where’s the red ball”? , whereas dads would tend to just say “Where’s the ball”? 

Mothers are more likely to organise play activities, but dads tend to be a bit more relaxed and less structured. And fathers demonstrate more of a rough and tumble style of play, especially when children are older.

Mothers who themselves come from a professional background involving organisation and control, demonstrate less “child-led” type play. Dads however, are more willing to support their child’s play initiation.

Mothers often come from a fear-based approach when observing their children playing. Of course, this is generated by intense feelings of not wanting to see our children hurt. But it’s not always in the child’s best interests to constantly be reminded of potential dangers.

Fathers, can provide an alternative view when it comes to exploration and play. They often support their children to go beyond feelings of caution, and be more active in risk taking. This is needed now especially, when our current habits veer towards being fearful of any form of discomfort or pain.

But of course parenting differences depend on individual parenting styles and how each parent was raised themselves. We tend to parent in similar ways to how we were parented. The patterns or constructs of what we consider “normal” are set in our own early years.

What Mothers Need to do to Support Dads

  • Avoid guiding and controlling father/child interactions. Adult, functioning, healthy men are fully capable of caring for their children without needing too much guidance.
  • Leave them to it. There’s a lot to be gained from spending some time away and leaving daddy and child/ren to their own fun in mummy’s absence.
  • Don’t compare or look for reasons to criticise how dad is caring. He has a right to parent in his own unique way, just as you do.
  • Support play activities which involve rough and tumble games. The evidence is clear that through hours of this type of play exposure, children learn about boundaries and when (and how) to control their own exuberance.
  • Avoid being the problem solver in the household. If kids learn they can go to either parent for solutions, or more importantly, to help them find their own, this supports equity and independence.
  • Ignore what doesn’t matter, in other words, pick your battles. Save your energy for what’s important and genuinely praise dad’s attempts when it’s warranted.

Six Ways Fathers can Support Mothers

  1. Show your children what respectful communication means. If they see and hear you being nice humans, it will be easier for your kids to behave in the same way.
  2. Listen to her insights. Give your partner credit for knowing what your child/ren need and what generally works. This is especially valid if they do most of the childcare.
  3. Avoid asking her permission before you initiate doing something for the children. If you see they need something, then just do it.
  4. Don’t restrict your caregiving to the easy stuff. Take the initiative when it comes to laundry, cleaning up vomit, nappy changing and teeth cleaning. Nurturing is not gender based – it’s connection based.
  5. Value your pragmatic side. Hormonal changes for women can make the early days especially challenging. Coming from a practical, solution focused approach can be very useful to solving problems.
  6. Focus your energies on building an emotional attachment with your baby. Look for their signs or cues of seeking engagement with you and follow their lead. Appreciate that bonding is not unique to mothers.

How Fathers can Build Strong Emotional Connections with their Kids

  • Prioritise family time. The days are long but the years are short when raising a family. Make time to just enjoy your kids.
  • Get down on the floor and play. Wrestling type, rough and tumble games are infinitely beneficial. Show joy and be fully engaged.
  • Put your phone and social media away. Children know when they need to share their parents’ attention.
  • Aim to parent each child in a fair and equitable way, regardless of gender.
  • Value your input into your child/ren’s lives. You count - don’t back off when it’s getting hard.
  • Appreciate that parenting is passive as well as active. You don’t always need to be doing something obvious to show love.
  • Aim to spend some one on one time with each child each day. Nothing says “I love you” like unfiltered attention.
  • Love their mother. A strong, united relationship makes a huge difference to happier family life. If this is impossible, aim to be civil and respectful of each other.

What Mothers can do Which Makes a Real Difference to Fathering

  • Be fair when it comes to income provision. Long gone are the days of men being the uber income earner. Work out what’s fair for your family and think creatively about how you can share the financial input.
  • Don’t try and fix what’s not broken. Value the differences you have in raising the kids, your way isn’t necessarily the best way.
  • Support your partner’s time spent with other dads. He will learn from same gender parents all sorts of options in childrearing which may not have occurred to either of you.
  • Don’t criticise his parents - this can lead to feelings of betrayal. Be a kind human and acknowledge that most of us do the best we can, with what we have at the time.

Most Importantly

Look after yourselves first. It’s a fallacy that children need to be prioritised in the family. Unless the adults in the household are intact, the whole family feels it.

Written by: Jane Barry Midwife and Child Health Nurse.