Raising kids is like managing a career: One turn of events can have a big impact on your performance rating. I was reminded of this when we replaced our family-room carpet -- and banished all toys to the basement. Our stock with the kids took a huge hit.
But we also moved the old carpet downstairs to cover what had been bare concrete. Suddenly, Jordan, 8, and Marissa, 6, had a large, soft play space unencumbered by good-carpet rules. We had lots of room for "Dad games": body-slamming into big, cushy pillows; attacking each other with large, spongy tubes; and playing a tussled baseball-football combo.
Within weeks, Marissa reported to my wife that her love for me had grown "from this much" (spreading her hands a bit wider than shoulder width) to "this much" (hands at full wingspan) -- an improvement of at least 35 percent.
In business, I'd get a raise. But at home, I reaped a different benefit: My wife stopped fretting about somebody getting hurt (admittedly, it happens) and chiding me for getting the kids all worked up. She saw that through horseplay, I was bonding with them in a loving, important way.
Richard Laliberte, a former senior writer at Men's Health, has written extensively about fatherhood and children's health.
A Clash of Styles
"Many mothers complain that dads will rev kids up too much, aren't as concerned if they get tired or dirty, and don't watch them as carefully as they should," says Henry Biller, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island. The broader translation: Dads can be irresponsible, uncaring, and even irrelevant, especially since many aren't able to spend as much time with their children as mothers do. In the early 1990s, researchers surveyed studies on family relationships and childhood development and found that in 50 percent of them, fathers weren't even mentioned.
But the parenting landscape is changing rapidly:
- Baby-boomer dads spend one-third more time with their kids than their fathers did with them, and younger dads are spending an even greater amount of time with their children.
- Although the number of fathers who stay home to raise children is small (0.8 percent, compared with 21 percent of mothers), the rate nearly doubled between 1991 and 1996.
- Households headed by single fathers are the fastest-growing type of family -- up 25 percent between 1995 and 1998 -- in part, experts speculate, because courts are awarding custody to dads in divorce cases more often.
- Since the early 1990s, the federal government has instituted such programs as the Unwed Fathers Project and the Responsible Fatherhood Demonstration Project, and continued to fund studies to better understand the role of fathers in families.
What's becoming clear is that "although men may take a different approach, the essence of good parenting -- sharing and sacrificing yourself emotionally, spiritually, materially, and intellectually -- has nothing to do with gender," says Kyle Pruett, M.D., a professor of childhood development at Yale University, and author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child.Experts now realize that neither a mom's way nor a dad's way is better, and both ways work to a child's benefit.
But the mere presence of a father isn't as important as "emotional paternity" -- a special bond that children share with their dads or other caring men, says Dr. Pruett. This crucial connection can be established when fathers spend time playing, disciplining, and helping to care for their children. Here, the most important ways dads help raise kids right.
1. Turning Work Into Child's Play
Even during mundane chores like changing diapers, giving a bath, or supervising toothbrushing, dads tend to be physically playful. They'll pick up a child by her feet or splash water on her head when she doesn't expect it. Fathers are often more unpredictable, surprising (and, truth be told, disruptive) than moms, who tend to stick with calm, familiar routines. Babies notice the difference early on: When a 2-month-old senses that her dad is approaching, she'll scrunch up her shoulders, open her eyes wide, and breathe more quickly, anticipating excitement. (With her mom, she'll tend to relax her shoulders and lower her eyelids.)
As their kids get older, dads are apt to rely less on board games or toys during playtime than to create spontaneous fun. "When I get home from work, my son is just waiting for me to chase after him," says Jim McAllister, of Springvale, ME. "I'll make a quick move toward him, and he'll crack up and take off down the hall." Says Curtis Cooper, of Apple Valley, MN, "My wife usually reads to our 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, but I typically let them jump on me."
Research shows that babies and toddlers who bond with their fathers feel more secure and curious, and get less frustrated by problems than those who don't have a lot of one-on-one time. The benefits can be seen early on: "A child who's starting to crawl, for instance, is more likely to push and pull at an obstacle, or back up and try a different route, rather than cry for help," says Dr. Pruett.
Fooling around can also teach kids to be compassionate in emotionally charged or stressful situations. "A dad is more likely than a mom to get physical with the kids, but if someone gets hurt, he'll immediately calm everyone down so that the conflict doesn't escalate further," says Brenda Volling, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "While he's making sure everyone's OK, his children earn to put their own fun on hold to help others. His compassion teaches them how to empathize."
2. Inspiring Sibling Love
It's natural for the dad to spend extra time with an older sibling when the mom is caring for a new baby. But Volling's research finds that this can have benefits beyond giving a tired mom a break: In older kids, it may foster a willingness to share with and teach their younger siblings -- years later.
"When our second child, Emily, was born, she became 'Mommy's girl,' and our 3-year-old, Allison, became 'Daddy's girl,' " says Stephen Emick, of Allentown, PA. "Allison and I were always close, but now she really enjoys doing things with just me. But she's also willing to share her toys and play teacher with Emily."
"When a baby is being smothered with attention, it's important to make an older child feel she's special too," says Volling. "By being the center of her father's attention, the older child thinks she's getting a more equal distribution of love."
3. Teaching Kids to Cope
Whether his child is learning to ride a bike, solve a puzzle, or decide what to play with a friend, a father will often encourage her to work through a problem, even if it causes a tear or two. "When Haleigh, who's 5, is perched on the edge of a platform at the playground and afraid to come down, I don't carry her off," says her dad, Steven Klem, of Cocoa Beach, FL, who moderates a chat room for at-home dads on America Online. "I say, 'You can do this. Find a way to get down on your own.' It doesn't help her if she always has to rely on me."
Dads also teach their children that every action has a consequence. In our house, Jordan loves to dawdle before getting ready for bed. But I let him manage his own time -- and if his pajamas aren't on, and his teeth aren't brushed by 9 P.M., I just won't read him a bedtime story. My wife, on the other hand, is more inclined to update him continually with reminders to get moving -- and then will let things slide if he doesn't make the deadline.
Stepping back or making kids live with their choices can seem harsh to moms, who tend to be quick to comfort a child before he becomes upset. But studies find a dad's hands-off approach can help a child build confidence and keep cool in the face of difficulties. A preschooler, for example, may be more willing to try out a new set of monkey bars or take turns on a slide; by grade school, he may be better able to withstand the pressure of exams and cliques than those who lack a nurturing father.
4. Introducing Children to the Real World
It may take a village to raise a child, but in most cultures, it's a father's job to show his son and daughter what real life is like. And dads do this from the start: Once their babies are old enough, fathers like to carry them facing outward, says Dr. Pruett. As their kids get older, dads are quick to offer constructive criticism. "When a child misbehaves, a man is more likely to say, 'If you keep acting like that, you won't have any friends,'; or 'You won't be successful,' " says Dr. Pruett. Mothers, however, may focus on soothing their child's feelings.
"Haleigh is very emotional and falls apart easily," says Klem. "If she gets upset over being teased, I tell her that it happens because she shows her emotions and cries right away. If she stayed calm and stood up for herself more, it wouldn't be such a fun game for the other kids."
Their ease in detaching themselves emotionally may even make fathers more effective disciplinarians, says Dr. Pruett. "Children realize that crying or complaining won't help them get their way."
McAllister, for instance, expects courteous behavior from his 18-month-old son: "Liam can be rough and boisterous," he says, "but when he's around a friend's 8-month-old daughter, I make it clear that he has to be careful with her. I act as if he can understand me, even if he really doesn't." And, surprisingly, Liam usually lives up to his father's wishes. "He respects her space. He won't quickly run up to her like he will to children his own age, and will only touch her gently," says McAllister.
Dads can also set a good example of how men and women should interact in everyday life, says Volling. "Without a positive male role model, girls in particular may not learn how to relate with boys or men."
5. Boosting Language Skills
Research has shown that the more a dad reads to his child, the better she becomes at expressing her ideas and feelings. Certainly, reading with a mom is also beneficial. But the way men speak to kids -- using playful voices, bigger words, and less baby talk than moms do -- piques and holds their interest and helps teach them how to communicate.
"I talk to my son like a grown-up, not a toddler," says McAllister. "My wife calls his bottle a 'bubba,' because that's what he calls it. I call it a bottle, because that's its real name." While both a mom's style of imitating and a dad's way of speaking can boost language skills early on, researchers believe the combination also helps children perform better in school. Girls, in particular, are less likely "to give up on math and science once they hit the fourth or fifth grade," says Dr. Pruett.
Kids have a beneficial effect on their dads as well: Studies find that fathers who are close to their children tend to be more compassionate, easygoing, and responsible. They also tend to have stronger marriages -- even after the kids have flown the coop.
And fatherhood simply has its own pleasures. I didn't institute "Dad games" out of premeditated concern for my kids' social and intellectual development. We started playing because it was fun -- for me as much as for them.
Isn't that the essence of being a good father? You can be the stern disciplinarian when it's necessary, and you may disappoint your kids in innumerable ways, but when it comes down to it, what they'll remember most are the times you were just happy to be there.