People learn best by doing, so Lisa Levey challenges mothers to let the fathers of their children figure out parenting on their own terms, even if it means fumbling from time to time.
As mothers, we know that the most powerful lessons our children learn often come about as a result of direct experience rather than “being told.” Yet many of us struggle to apply this same wisdom to our husbands (and partners), failing to provide them the opportunity to learn how to parent through trial and error. We tend to over-manage their parenting efforts rather than giving them the freedom to learn on their own and develop a parenting style that feels comfortable for them and reflects the unique skills they bring to parenting.
For women, the major physical changes of pregnancy are visceral and pave the way for experiencing themselves as mothers-to-be. Full immersion during the earliest days and months of their child’s life provides women with an in-depth parenting tutorial while the vast majority of men take very little time away from work when their child is born. Not surprisingly, this mismatch in direct experience leads the mom—in the vast majority of households—to quickly become the parenting expert. At the end of a few-month maternity leave, where the mom has spent most of her waking minutes understanding the sights and sounds of her baby, she has become the parenting PhD while her husband is lucky to qualify for an associate degree in baby X. Naturally, many women find it challenging when their husbands (or partners) seem so much less skilled at parenting and the tendency is to simply take over. But giving dads the space to try, bumble, and try again is the most powerful way for them to learn and to build their competence as caregivers. This foundation helps to set the stage for a far more shared approach to parenting over the long-term.
Research suggests that dads and moms bring some different parenting skills to the table. For example, fathers are more likely to distract a child who is having a tantrum while mothers tend toward helping their child to express these frustrations. Both strategies can be beneficial—teaching children resilience and rolling with the punches or strengthening their communications skills. Similarly, fathers tend toward letting children persevere when a toy is not behaving as desired while mothers are more likely to intervene to help their child succeed. A case can be made for both approaches, learning the power of perseverance or the value of support in helping to reach a goal. Moms can jump to the conclusion that their parenting instincts are superior without recognizing the value their partners bring. Making room for fathers to be full and active parents expands the portfolio of parenting skills.
While conducting research for my book on a partnership approach to parenting, one mom described how her husband was more successful than she in helping her infant to become a better sleeper. Despite multiple attempts on her part, it was during one of her business trips when her daughter learned to sleep through the night. In another conversation, a mom’s story highlighted the power of becoming parenting partners: She was growing increasingly frustrated with her toddler son who repeatedly demanded she get him new pants when the ones he tried on were too small. She implored him to ask nicely but at that moment he could not. Her son broke down and ran to his father who gently suggested the boy was sad because his pants no longer fit. The mom said, “I watched my husband’s different type of approach. It made me relax to watch him have more compassion with my son’s emotions. I am constantly adapting my idea of what parenting is based on what I try, what my husband tries, and what seems to work.”
I’ll never forget the night when my husband discovered the magic of the vacuum cleaner. Our younger son was a borderline colicky infant, sometimes crying without stop for more than an hour, and nothing seemed to help. One night I came home from having dinner with a friend and my husband was triumphant. He explained that after trying all the tricks up his sleeve to calm our son—feeding, changing, rocking, singing—he remembered hearing the sound of a vacuum cleaner can sometimes help. He decided to give it a try and as if by magic, he flipped the on switch and in mere seconds our son stopped crying, relaxed and soon fell asleep.
Sociologists have a term—maternal gate keeping—for mothers seeking to control the parenting terms of engagement. Researchers have found that the mother’s encouragement—or discouragement—directly impacts how involved fathers are in caring for their children. Understandably, ongoing discouragement moves dads to pull back and robs them of the opportunity to learn and grow as parents. Stereotypes dictate that maybe our children’s clothing won’t be as nicely matched—and in our house this turns out to have some truth with my husband and I having differing wardrobe standards—and maybe the meals won’t be as nutritionally balanced (my husband and I are more well matched on this one). But far more importantly, what the child and father will have is a relationship built on shared experience and deep connection. When fathers are given the space to parent in the way that feels natural for them, children, men, and families all benefit.
So this father’s day, instead of a tie, a new shirt, or a watch, know that the best present you can give your man is the room to develop into the father he wants to be.
Note: This article originally appeared in Role/Reboot.