Two years ago, a national poll of parents showed that many mothers were very aware of being criticised for the parenting decisions, small and large, that make up daily life with children. Now the same poll has turned to fathers, and it turns out that they also frequently feel judged and found wanting. In this national sample of fathers of children up to the age of 13, 52 per cent of the fathers surveyed said that they had been criticized for their parenting.
Sarah Clark, the co-director of the CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan, said that ever since the poll of mothers, she had been curious about whether the same factors involved in what is known as mum-shaming also play out with fathers.
“I think there was a sense that it was a mum phenomenon,” she said. “This poll shows it’s really not.”
As with the mothers, much of the criticism the fathers recalled was coming from close to home: 44 per cent from the child’s other parent, 24 per cent from grandparents. And both mothers and fathers were most likely to be criticized around discipline (67 per cent of the dads), followed by nutrition (43 per cent).
People volunteer advice to parents all the time, said Dr. David L. Hill, an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro. But unless it’s been requested, that advice is rarely welcome.
“If somebody does offer advice, our tendency is to be angry – somebody has taken something very important to us, which is how we raise our children and suggested that we’re doing it wrong, and that is immensely inflammatory,” he said. And it sometimes makes fathers feel that it’s not worth trying.
The report made Dr. Craig Garfield recall a moment when he was a resident, pushing his 1-year-old in a stroller, with the child in his customary preferred position, his leg bent back. One of his professors – an expert who had recently lectured the residents on child abuse – came up to him and said: “Look, your child is uncomfortable in the stroller. Straighten his leg out.”
“It was quite a moment for me,” said Garfield, now a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital, and the co-author of both versions of the American Academy of Pediatrics clinical reports on the role of fathers. “Here was this international expert and I was getting scolded on the street.”
Garfield works with expectant fathers and encourages them to get closely involved with their babies right from the beginning.
The phenomenon of “maternal gatekeeping – mothers play a large role in determining fathers’ roles.
Geoffrey Brown, a developmental psychologist in the department of human development and family science at the University of Georgia, who has studied fathers of young children, described the phenomenon of “maternal gatekeeping – mothers play a large role in determining fathers’ roles.” Mothers can encourage and they can discourage, he said, and sometimes both at once, with mothers asking fathers to do something and then not liking the way it gets done.
Mothers sometimes note with irritation that fathers may get a great deal of praise just for showing up or for getting a child dressed.
In one of his research studies, looking at fathers and 3-year-olds, the effects of the father’s involvement on the child’s attachment varied depending on whether the involvement was play or caregiving, and whether it happened on workdays or non-workdays.
Research has shown that fathers’ involvement has lots of benefits, Garfield said. “We know that fathers use different words than mothers, and that helps develop the child’s expressive vocabulary, they use different language when out and about in the world.” Fathers are more likely to engage in “rough and tumble” play, he said, and they often keep changing the rules, which can be very exciting for children and helps them learn.
In the poll, 32 per cent of the fathers had been criticized for being too rough, and 32 per cent for not paying attention to their children. “Some things are unique to dads,” Clark said. “Being too rough and not paying attention play into some of the gender stereotypes still present in our society.”
Fathers tend to engage with their children in more physically active ways, Brown said, and tend to take more risks and encourage exploration. “They might be engaging with their kids in a way, not just not harmful but actually helpful, but different from mothers.”
Mothers sometimes note with irritation that fathers may get a great deal of praise just for showing up or for getting a child dressed. But it’s insulting when fathers “face the assumption that we’re babysitting rather than parenting,” Hill said. “You wouldn’t praise a woman for getting the barrettes in straight.” A father might hear something like, “Wow, her hair is combed, congratulations!”
“I think we have to be aware of praising rudimentary success as almost a form of insult,” he said. “As a society, we need to have high expectations for dads and help them to meet them.”
Sometimes, of course, fathers (like mothers) really do have mistaken ideas about discipline, and fathers may feel their role is to deal out penalties. Hill said that he often starts conversations about spanking with the question, “What are you trying to do here?” Sometimes a parent will reflect, he said, and conclude that physical discipline is not, in fact, working very well.
Where there is any chance that a child may be in danger, or any question of abuse, you have to intervene. Hill suggested that one way to help before things go too far may be to offer a hand: “Hey, looks like you’re having a hard time, can I help?”
Criticism, of course, can sometimes have the desired effect. “One of the things I thought was very heartening,” Hill said, was that almost half of the fathers who reported being criticized said that they either changed their behavior in response or sought out more information. “They took this moment to educate themselves.”
Even pediatricians are often operating from an unconscious bias that dads are going to be less tuned in to their children’s behaviour.
But being criticized made some fathers want to be less involved, especially when the negative voice was coming from the child’s other parent. “I would encourage parents not to feel they have to solve an impasse on their own,” Hill said. “There are all sorts of third parties that can help, counselors, pediatricians and other providers.”
There are also lessons in the poll for pediatricians – like me – and for teachers and day care providers. One in 10 fathers reported they had felt that a child’s teacher or health care provider assumed they were not very knowledgeable about their child, and about a quarter said they felt excluded from those communications.
“Even pediatricians are often operating from an unconscious bias that dads are going to be less tuned in to their children’s behaviour,” Hill said. “Even as a dad, I have to make a conscious effort to turn to the dad.”
Sending signals that fathers are somehow less qualified in their knowledge and ability to parent “can really undermine both their confidence and their level of engagement,” Clark said.
“The fathers I come across are all problem-solvers,” Garfield said. “They see a problem – the child’s behaviour, or mum’s unhappy – and they want to find a way to fix it.”
By Perri Klass © The New York Times