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Tips for Dads

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."