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Hands-On Dads Are Important

What Kids Think About Working Parents









by Kyle Pruett, MD

Fathers are one of the great, often untapped, resources in the lives of their children. What dads actually do with their kids matters more than how often they do it. Even if a dad is only available occasionally to dress, feed, and care for a baby, the child will be sure to benefit. The way fathers hold, touch, talk to, and play with a baby matters more to the child's overall development than the amount of time a dad punches on the parental time clock.

After many years of study, we're beginning to see and understand some of the differences fathers make in the lives of their children. Here's how: Dads are creative playmates. A study by psychologist Ross Parke at the University of Illinois tells us that fathers pick up their babies differently every time they do it. Dads usually have a quick, playful interaction, or a tickle or tease, before actually carrying their child. Babies enjoy this style of play and may encourage it whenever Dad comes into view.

Dad builds a baby's brainpower. The more information babies get about dads ( Wow, he swings me high in the air! ), the more they want. A baby's brain processes daddy differences  as if it were building a complex jigsaw puzzle. The more successful a baby feels about each piece of information ( I knew he'd tickle me again! ), the more the baby wants to keep adding on new pieces. In other words, novel experiences with Dad build a baby's ability to anticipate certain events, and this builds brainpower.

Dads cheer babies on. As babies begin to crawl and toddle, exploring the world under their own steam, fathers tend to let them roam a bit farther (and take a few more chances) than mothers generally do. A dad s cheerleading helps babies become confident to approach new experiences.

Dads make great jungle gyms. Another characteristic of father nurture is the access babies feel they have to their father's body--hair, mustache, and ears, almost any available body part. This is fun for kids and it can be an important building block of intimacy and self-esteem.

Dads promote persistence. When dads play with their kids, they tend to use fewer props of a specifically educational value but, rather, they incorporate whatever is around. Dads encourage problem solving, and combine it with an active play style, promoting a quality ofsticking with it  that serves children well when they're in school and later, in the workplace.

Dads widen kids social horizons. In my own research, I've found that when fathers are as prominent in their children's lives as their mothers are, children learn to negotiate two important, separate, and different relationships. Having a distinct relationship with both a father and a mother from an early age equips children to deal with the broader, more diverse range of people they'll meet in the future.

Dads are world-view disciplinarians. Mom is more likely to ask a child to stop doing something because, It hurts Mommy when you don't listen to her.  In other words, she uses her emotional relationship with the child as a reference point. Dad is more likely to remind a child of the social implications of selfish or rude behavior. He might say, Max, nobody will want to play with you if you keep that up.  Of course, Dad may also teach something about relationships and Mom about the world, but each basic message tends to be distinct, and it s a fortunate child who hears the harmony in both of these tunes.

Dads help sons to be nurturing. A boy whose father has bathed and fed him knows that nurturing is something dads do. And when it's his turn to be a dad, he'll think of nurturing as part of his masculine identity, and he'll honor it just as his own mom and dad did.

Dads help daughters feel competent. A daughter who has been helped to feel both feminine and powerful by a loving, caring dad knows that the world is an intriguing, fascinating place that is hers to enter, shape, contribute to, and enjoy.

But as profound an effect as men have on their children reverse may be truer. When a man becomes a father, he often softens around the edges, becoming protective in ways he's never been before. A new dad may even remember a particular moment when he realized that he was doing great, just being himself with his child.

Kyle Pruett, M. D. is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University Child Study Center. Adapted from an article in Work & Family Life newsletter.






















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