What do fathers offer to the child that a mother cannot?
It is taking us a long time to realize that just like mothers, fathers are parents. That means that parents – mothers and fathers – are equally capable of taking care of children’s needs in every domain of development in a way that is sensitive and appropriate for the age of the child. So fathers can change diapers, feed children, play, offer emotional support, attend school activities, etc.
There are, however, differences in how parents carry out these tasks. These differences are due to gender but also to other personal and background characteristics. My research shows that fathers and mothers are similar in the way they parent, but are also different, and, in some cases, complement one another. For example, fathers, more than mothers, engage in physical or rough and tumble play. Mothers may more often than fathers point out emotional aspects of play.
What research finding surprised you the most in your own work or in the field in general?
The most interesting and surprising finding is that father’s language skills are a stronger predictor of children’s language skills than mother’s language skills. This is true across all income levels. This finding does not mean that mothers are not important for children’s language development. It says that fathers may play a specific role. For years, we’ve been telling dads that they are insensitive because they don't use “motherese” when talking to their children. It turns out that how fathers talk to their children is linguistically challenging, which encourages language development.
What choices did you make specifically because of your research findings?
My research has given me insight into the importance of developing healthy and supportive relationships with my children and my husband and the realization that I need to nurture not only my relationship with my children but also support and encourage the relationship between my children and my husband.
It is sometimes difficult for mothers to share parenting, or to realize that fathers’ way of parenting is just as valid and important as ours. Mothers do not have the monopoly on parenting. Understanding that the father-child relationship is as unique as the mother-child relationship is important in respecting and encouraging each other in that role.
I have also learned that parenting is very difficult for everyone. It is essential for parents to have a tool kit for resolving conflict, dealing with challenges that arise day-to-day, and for supporting themselves and each other. Taking care of the caregivers so that they, in turn, can best take care of their children is essential for the wellbeing of the entire family.