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.