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What role do fathers play in upbringing of their children? Fathers do not have to be second-class caretakers, who are “called upon to serve” only when mothers or grandmothers are not available. They can think, they can fulfill even complicated tasks and they can take care of children as well as mothers do. They just do it in their own way, says Associate Professor Tomasz Grzyb, social psychologist from SWPS University.

Trust with instructions on the fridge door

“Kevin must wash his hair today. Remember, you must first tell him that you will be pouring water on his head with a showerhead, otherwise he will be scared. After the bath, wipe his ears diligently and wrap him in a towel. Then he can watch television, but only for half an hour. Make sure he brushes his teeth, but don’t give him the regular toothpaste, because he will spit it out...”.

Many fathers hear this type of instructions from their female partners, when the mothers are away for the night. The instructions are so precise that they should help the fathers to take care of the children. Is this really the case, though? Isn’t there a hidden message in these instructions? A message that would go something like this: “I know how this should be done. I am the best person to do it. YOU must do it today, because of the circumstances, but there is no doubt that you will merely clumsily copy what I would do. Therefore, I am telling you what to do, so that you know how to proceed.” “You klutz”, you may conclude to yourself, under your breath.

Obviously, one should note that mothers do not act this way without a reason. Unfortunately, we – the fathers, must admit that their behavior is simply rational. If our female partners don’t voice the instructions (or even better, it they don’t write them down and put them on the fridge door), they must expect to receive several telephone calls per day, asking: “Where are Katie’s shorts?”, “Can Paul eat the cake that is in the fridge?”, “What time is Sophie’s ballet class?”. The days when fathers have to take care of their children full-time sometimes feel like the worst punishment. We (men) would much rather dig kilometers of trenches instead of being left alone with three children for the weekend. Again, paradoxically, it might be due to the fact that we want to do things exactly the way our female partners do them and we treat any deviation from the instructions they have left us as a breach of the law and as questioning of our own ability to manage in any situation. But perhaps we could try a different approach?

Fathers do not have to be inferior versions of mothers, who are “called upon to serve” only when mothers or grandmas are not available. Fathers are separate individuals. They think, they can fulfill even complicated tasks and they can take care of children as well as mothers do. But, and we should say it loud and clear, they do it differently. Among all the tasks and responsibilities related to childcare, only breastfeeding cannot be done by men. Besides this one activity, there are many various tasks related to child-raring and none of them is inherently manly or womanly. If I, as a men, do not know how to do something, it does not mean that this activity automatically becomes a domain of a woman. Perhaps, I just have to learn how to do it and I do not have to do it the same way as the mother of the child does.

The fact that men do not know how to do something, does not mean that the activity automatically becomes a domain of women. Perhaps, fathers just have to learn how to do the task. But they don’t have to do it the same way as mothers do it.

Real men can build sandcastles

As part of her research project, one of SWPS University’s students developed a concept of a billboard campaign that aimed to encourage fathers to actively participate in taking care of and bringing up their children. Interestingly, despite her strong feminist viewpoint, she decided to use a very sexist phrase: “Only real men can...”, but she used it to convey a special message. For example: a slogan, “Only real men can build sturdy sandcastles that don’t disintegrate”, was accompanied by an image of a sandcastle designed in AutoCAD.

Another slogan, “Only real men can plan a walk so that the stops at a playground and a grocery store do not require walking the same street twice”, was illustrated with a topographic map resembling the schematic of the famous mathematical problem called “Seven Bridges of Königsberg”. All these billboards aimed to convey one message: there are no unmanly tasks related to childcare. Moreover, all of these tasks can be done in a manly way. 

Let’s do it in a manly way

But what does it mean, “in a manly way”? Of course one must remember that every man and every woman is different. They might behave in a completely different way than the stereotypical representative of their gender, however at a group level there are some common characteristics. According to research conducted by American pediatrician Meg Meeker, men emphasize slightly different elements of child-rearing than women. Firstly, men usually do not worry about details, such as kids’ outfits. Generally, the kid should be warm and comfortable. A food spot on the sweater or a hole in the pants do not necessarily mean that the child should change (not to mention the silly requirements of matching clothes). Fathers usually do not care (or care less than mothers do) what the kids eat. Again, the kids are supposed to eat. If the kids do not like an avocado and kale salad, a hot-dog will perfectly do and replenish the calories lost during play.

Men like to set goals for children and encourage them to face challenges. It shows in the type of games they encourage the kids to play. In a book The Family Project, Glenn Stanton, research fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family in Ottawa, emphasizes that fathers stress the element of competition during play, while mothers are mainly focused on ensuring that the child does not experience the feeling of injustice. These differences are also clearly visible at the later stages of upbringing, e.g. during teenage years, when children tend to easily get into conflict situations. In these tense moments, mothers usually want to solve the issue peacefully, while fathers more frequently think that a conflict situation is a good opportunity to remind the kids who is the boss and who makes decisions at home (even if it is not the man - the main message is that it is not the teenager).

It is not important how it’s done, but rather that it is done at all

Generally (although you must always remember that in psychology it does not mean always), men approach tasks with less attention to procedures, but with a greater focus on achieving the goal. Although sometimes it provides results that do not match expectations (remember the pieces of furniture that were haphazardly put together “because nobody will tell me how to assemble a shelf”?), in some situations this approach leads to rather good effects. It shows that an effective approach to a problem (and, in the end, a solution) is more important than precisely following the instructions. Of course, it is better to hang a picture by drilling a hole in the wall, inserting an expansion bolt and a screw inside the bolt, etc. However, if you know that you can (without the unnecessary fuss) hang the picture by using a double-sided tape, mounting adhesive, silicone or even chewing gum, then why not use such option? Of course, it would be contrary to the received instructions and perhaps contrary to the “international rules and regulations on mounting pictures”, but does it really matter? Is the picture hanging? Yes it is. So, let’s move to the next task.

There are also responsibilities related to childcare that men do better than women, which stems from anatomical differences. For example bathing a newborn. It is one of the most beautiful things that fathers can do for themselves and their children. The task provides a very strong bonding experience, a feeling of tenderness and trust and at the same time, it teaches fathers to take care of several aspects of the activity, such as the proper water temperature, having the towel and baby skin-care products handy as well as washing the baby properly. And let’s not kid ourselves, neither men nor women are born with these skills. Everyone must learn them, but in this case, men are surprisingly privileged thanks to their bigger hands, which enable men to handle the baby more confidently and to better ensure the child’s safety. Moreover, the bond that develops at this stage is a good introduction to the father’s participation in other childcare activities. If you can bathe a newborn, you can do anything.

Men approach tasks with less attention to procedures, but with a greater focus on achieving the goal. It shows that an effective approach to a problem and finding a solution is more important than precisely following the instructions.

Discrepancy protocol

Another typical example (but let’s not forget that psychology, to a large extent, consists of exceptions) of differences between mothers’ and fathers’ approach to upbringing is their attitude to risk taking. Imagine a family coming upon a hunter’s stand, while walking in the forest. “May I go up there?”, asks an eight-year old. How do you react? Most likely, this is the moment where the differences appear: the mother would probably say “no” and the father would presumably say: “Let’s go!” Paradoxically, the children need both of these messages, not only the information that this type of behavior is dangerous, but also: “Easy, if you are careful and stick to safety rules, you may do things that look dangerous”. It is obvious that the father would go up first and make sure that the steps of the ladder are not rotten and that the platform at the top is appropriate for the child to climb there. Not only an excessive caution (rather characteristic of mothers), but also uncurbed cockiness and exaggerated self-confidence (rather typical of fathers) would, by themselves, be inappropriate. Only as a set they make sense and are good for the child, for whom both the mother and the father are role models. By observing both parents, the child notes that they have different opinions, but they acknowledge the other side. Seeing that the father checks the steps of the ladder for sturdiness, children learn to ensure their own safety and also remember that one should take care of others in this way. Perhaps thanks to this experience, the kids will save someone from a silly decision that could result in a tragic outcome, in the future.

Different does not mean worse

Therefore, the expectations that fathers take care of children and spend time with them as if they were inferior versions of mothers, not only make no sense, but also they often are harmful for the children, for the fathers and their relationships with their female partners. Only when both parents realize their full potential as caretakers, in their own way, with their own ideas how to play and how to complete various tasks, they give their kids what the children really need: the mother and the father. Obviously at first Kevin, Sophie and Paul will say “but mom does it differently”, because children naturally pay attention to details, but after a while, they will appreciate that a task can be completed in many different ways and that different does not mean worse.

The article was first published in the Polish edition of „Newsweek Psychologia Extra 4/17”
Magazine available here »


About the Author

258 Tomasz Grzyb

Tomasz Grzyb – social psychologist, Associate Professor at the Department of Social Psychology at SWPS University in Wrocław. Specializes in psychology of social influence. He is also interested in methodology of psychological research, marketing and new technologies. He combines his research with marketing practice and runs workshops on social psychology, influencing and persuasion. Since 2013, he has been lecturing on techniques of social influence for the officers of NATO and allied countries. Father of three children.