When fathers take an active role in parenting, kids survive and THRIVE!

           
Behold the bungling father. Ever notice how the media has portrayed dads? They tend to be cast in the role of the loveable goofball, an inept stand in for Mother. Perhaps Madison Avenue executives produce these ads to appeal to mothers who want to believe that they alone are the competent caregivers who rely on dad only when they can’t be there.
 
In fact, fathers today are taking an increasingly active role in parenting. And guess what? They usually don’t burn dinner or break the dishes! But even when they do make mistakes, there is no question that having an involved father promotes a child’s wellbeing, from birth through adolescence. And just as with mothering, one learns to parent by doing. Yes, we all learn from our mistakes, as well as our success.
           
Feminism drew fathers further into the parenting fold
A variety of social trends have impacted men’s role in parenting. Ironically, the women’s movement may be one of the most substantial factors in facilitating men’s more active involvement in parenting. Feminism brought traditional gender roles under the lens for examination, and many of these roles were challenged and dispelled. This scrutiny was liberating for both women and men.
 
Along with women assuming executive positions, men became more comfortable in traditionally female occupations such as nursing and early childhood education. Opportunity and the economy draw the majority of mothers into work outside of the home. Therefore, necessity dictates that fathers and mothers both assume active roles in parenting after work. Two-father families create even more opportunities for men to hone their parenting skills.
           
Dads face obstacles to fathering at both work and home
Many are concerned about the impact of maternal employment on child development. Despite this, increased involvement of fathers as active caregivers has had a positive effect on the development of children and the emotional fulfillment of men. Few would dispute the importance of fathering for healthy child development. But substantial challenges prevent fathers from contributing all they can to the effort of parenting.
 
Most of the obstacles to fathering are outside of the home, such as demanding work schedules. However, some of the biggest impediments to fathering may be found in the home. In many families, mothers are the gatekeepers when it comes to access to the children. In families of divorce, there remains a strong legal bias toward mothers regarding custody.
           
Let fathers do it their own way
However, gatekeeping hinders a father’s access to his children even in intact families. A mother who is critical when her husband tries to pitch in or is too rigid in her expectations of the right way to do this and that – rather than letting Dad do things his own way – sends a message that says, “I can do it better – stay away.” In order to become more confident in his parenting skills, a father must have the opportunity to engage in lots of on-the-job training, especially since boys do not have the same child care experiences growing up that girls do (babysitting, caring for younger siblings).
 
So, an important message to gatekeepers is this: Children don’t care if their outfit is cute, diaper is too loose or nose is a bit crusty. They care about having their father’s love and attention. Dads are no more or less perfect than mothers when it comes to caregiving, though they may have a different style. And children tell us with their giggles and smiles just how important Dad is in their lives.
           
 
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.
 
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