When fathers responded to children’s emotional hurts, they differed from mothers in their focus on fixing the problem rather than addressing the hurt feeling. While this did not appear to be particularly “nurturing” at first, the seeming “indifference” was useful– particularly as children grew older. They would seek out and share things with their dads precisely because of their measured, problem-solving responses. The “indifference” actually became a strategic form of nurturing in emotionally-charged situations.
Fathers were also more likely to encourage children’s risk taking–whether on the playground, in school work, or in trying new things. While mothers typically discouraged risk-taking, fathers guided their children in deciding how much risk to take and encouraged them in it. At the same time, fathers were more attuned to developing a child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual independence–in everything from children making their own lunches and tying their own shoes to doing household chores and making academic decisions.
As she evaluated these differences, Doucet wondered if fathers just weren’t as “nurturing” as mothers. Their behaviors didn’t always fit the traditional definition of “holding close and sensitively responding.” But a key part of nurturing also includes the capacity to “let go.” It was this careful “letting-go” that fathers were particularly good at–in ways that mothers were often not.
Her findings provide empirical evidence for the feelings described on Public Discourse by Robert Oscar Lopez in his recent account of growing up without the influence of his father. Lopez yearned for what kids in traditional families often take for granted–the opportunity to learn how to act, speak, and behave in ways that reflect the unique gender cues provided by the parenting of a father and a mother. Although Lopez would have appeared normal on most sociological indexes (as a well-trained, high achieving student), inside he felt confused. In his own words, he grew up “weird,” unable to relate to or understand either gender very well. And that made it hard to understand himself.
Andrea Doucet ends her report by sharing an illuminating moment from her research. After a long evening discussing their experiences as single dads, Doucet asked a group of sole-custody fathers, “In an ideal world, what resources or supports would you like to see for single fathers?” She expected to hear that they wanted greater social support and societal acceptance, more programs and policies directed at single dads. Instead, after a period of awkward silence, one dad stood and said, “An ideal world would be one with a father and a mother. We’d be lying if we pretended that wasn’t true.” Nods of agreement followed with expressions of approval from the other dads. Although many had had bitter experiences of separation and divorce, they couldn’t help but acknowledge the inherent connectedness of mothering and fathering–and the profound deficit experienced when one or the other is not there.
Arguments for the non-essential father may reflect an effort to accept the reality that many children today grow up without their dads. But surely a more effective and compassionate approach would be to acknowledge the unique contributions of both mothers and fathers in their children’s lives, and then do what we can to ensure that becomes a reality for more children.
This article is reprinted with kind permission from Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.
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