Dads Just Want to Have Fun
Do dads parent differently than moms?
Absolutely, Rob Palkovitz, University of Delaware professor of individual and family studies, says. Fathers tend to be more unpredictable and engage in more fun activities with their kids, Palkovitz says, perhaps as a subliminal effort to make up for generally spending less time with the children than mothers do.
Palkovitz, who has researched fathering and the transition to parenthood for more than a decade, says that mothers tend to play a greater role in care-giving and, therefore, interact with children at multiple levels, including play.
"When fathers come on the scene, they engage in spontaneous, unpredictable and wacky stuff in order to have a higher impact, sort of 'I'm home! It's going to be impossible to ignore me!'" Palkovitz says. "It's making up for absence in time by presence in intensity.
"Fathers desire to have an impact and a presence. Because fathers have less of that face time, they tend to go for the big effect. The place where you see that most exaggerated is with nonresidential fathers--divorced or separated dads," Palkovitz says.
Regardless of how fathers interact with children at play, good parenting skills are vital for the healthy development of both boys and girls, according to Palkovitz, who is the father of four sons between the ages of 16 and 26.
A good father is sensitive to the needs and interests of his children, spends a lot of time directly engaged in activities that the kids are interested in and helps them achieve higher goals than they could reach by themselves, Palkovitz says.
"Time alone is a very good thing," he says. "We put a high premium on family time, and that's important, but when you are one-on-one with anybody in the family, your relationship is different from anyone in the group. When a father invests in his relationship with each child and his wife, it pays big dividends."
Palkovitz says that many single mothers have done heroic jobs raising children by themselves, but added that fathers play a unique role in raising children, while absentee fathers usually cause a negative impact on the children's development.
"If it's death, then that's unavoidable, but if it's abandonment, if it's 'I divorced your mom, but I don't see you any more,' that's a lifestyle choice and that sends a different message to a child," Palkovitz says. "With a divorced and father-absent family, there is a sense of loss that isn't there in a father-present family."
Palkovitz, who has done volunteer work with scores of foster children, says that almost all of them want to know where their father is or why their father is not involved in their lives.
"You read about 'father need' and 'father hunger.' That is something that is real," Palkovitz says.
Fathers and daughters
Fathers play a critical role in their daughter's lives, Palkovitz says. Research shows that a father's involvement in a daughter's school activities pays bigger dividends for the girl in terms of academic achievement and career promotion than such involvement does for sons.
However, Palkovitz cautions that these findings are based on limited research that most likely has been influenced by stereotypes about sex-appropriate behavior. For example, he says, this greater impact on girls is seen when fathers encourage them to engage in math or science careers or other areas that have traditionally been underrepresented by females.
Fathers and sons
While men tend to encourage their daughters to pursue traditionally masculine fields, they are less likely to encourage their sons to develop a feminine side, Palkovitz says.
"Having said that, if fathers are involved in child care, as well as just play, and if they do housework, then they've modeled that this is appropriate for their sons," Palkovitz says. "If fathers say 'we all have a job to do in the house and sometimes I'll do the cooking and sometimes I'll do the cleaning and I'm going to help you learn how to do this,' that's really different from saying 'women clean and cook, let's go the garage and rebuild the carburetor.'"
photo available upon request