Pop culture doesn’t appreciate dads. Sitcoms make fun of their diapering (in)abilities or portray dads as irresponsible babysitters who feed the kids pizza, ice cream and sugary soda while mom is out for the evening. Personal experience tells me there may some truth in this. My own husband shows our kids zombie movies then acts surprised when they refuse to sleep with the lights out. Really.
Stereotypes aside, it can be hard to move past the mom-knows best mentality and make room for dads’ different style of parenting. Mom of four Tsara Shelton of Teague, Tex., says parenting together with her boys’ dad has been the biggest challenge in their happy, 13-year marriage. “I always want to be the one with the answers and insights! But in truth, it’s been co-parenting that’s blessed my boys with the best of what both mom and dad have to offer.” All moms can learn valuable lessons from watching what dads do best. Here’s how.
Dads are good with good enough
Most moms I know struggle to drown out the nagging inner critic who says we aren’t good enough. We feel intense pressure to keep the house (and kids!) clean and to respond cheerfully to every social obligation. Our to-do lists never get done. And it’s stressful. Researchers at Auburn University found women are more likely to feel inadequate at home and at work than men because we’re more perfectionistic.
Dads recognize the 80% solution is often good enough. They can walk away from a sink full of unwashed dishes – without feeling guilty – to spend time playing with the kids before bedtime. Moms can’t deny there is wisdom in this approach. Dishes don’t grow up and go off to college. Kids do.
Being good with “good enough” doesn’t mean dads deny their shortcomings. Tina Bushman, co-author of the family discussion-starting book Table Talk, says she has learned from watching her husband, John, address his missteps. “When it has been a rough parenting day, he will sit on the edge of our child’s bed and explain that even though parents try hard, we aren’t perfect. He apologizes if he got upset or said the wrong thing and asks forgiveness. It takes a humble dad to do that and I love him for it.”
Dads encourage active play
Mud pies, snow forts and do-it-yourself science experiments are dads’ domain, says Wendy Valderrama of Denver, Colo., “They do messy fun really well.” Valderrama watches her 3-year-old daughter’s princess wedding ball with prince Daddy every night. “He lets her take the lead and follows right along with her in the imaginative play,” she says. Dads’ passion for play is a joy to behold.
When they aren’t entertaining kids on their own level, dads expose kids to grown-up tasks and topics. A dad might teach a child how to mow the lawn or talk about financial matters during informal apprenticeship sessions. Since dads aren’t focused on ages and stages of development, they may share information that is over kids’ heads. There is an upside to this, Valderanna says. “The conversations I overhear between my daughter and her dad are amazing! I see her processing concepts I wouldn’t have thought possible because I am stuck in a preschool mentality all day.”
Dads encourage risk-taking
While moms’ protective instincts lead us to discourage kids from taking physical risks, studies show dads give kids more personal space to explore the environment, even if there is risk involved. “At the park, I’m nervous about my 2-year-old going down the big slide, and, at home, I protect my baby from face-planting very time he attempts to crawl,” says San Diego, Calif., mom Anna Crowe. Dads often push kids to go outside their comfort zones.
Physical challenges help kids develop strength, coordination and confidence. And, by testing their physical prowess, “kids learn valuable skills that could prevent them from getting into serious trouble in the future,” Crowe admits. Dads allow kids to learn by doing when moms might be more likely to teach by talking.
During the anxious moments in parenting, dads maintain a calm composure moms admire. Stacy Lewis of Long Beach, Calif., says her husband changed her perspective on parenting forever during one intense encounter with their three kids. He said, “I don’t get it! You are the mom. Why are you hollering?” And something clicked for Lewis. “He keeps things insanely balanced, and I love him for that.”
Dads set boundaries
Because women are focused on preserving social connections, we may avoid family conflict. The mental and emotional effort of peacekeeping can lead to emotional exhaustion for women, according to research by psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University. Over time, minor frustrations can grow into deep, simmering resentments.
Shelton admits she struggles to establish clear, firm rules for her kids. She sees most issues as gray areas and enjoys discussing the connections between kids’ behaviors, social expectations and cultural pressures. “If my hubby didn’t bring everything down to its simplicity I would get lost loving my children in the grey,” Shelton says.
While moms might see kids’ behavior in shades of gray, dads can take a more black-and-white view. Men are less likely to shy away from conflict because they don’t take it personally. That means they step in and confront interpersonal issues head-on. Shelton’s two youngest sons – who had symptoms of autism at early ages – learned to be comfortable in their own bodies and brains because of their dad’s black-and-white boundaries. “If my husband didn’t bring everything down to its simplicity I would get lost loving my boys in the gray,” she says. The key to parenting well is to figure out which situations require a firm, rule-based response and which ones call for deeper conversation. Dads seem to know this intuitively.
Dads don’t fret
Women often wish men would listen to our problems without trying to solve them, but that’s not how men are wired. When things go wrong, dads jump into problem-solving mode and determine what steps they can take to change the situation. If the first attempt isn’t successful, dads try another approach.
Women are more likely to focus on feelings, which can actually amplify distress. We may commiserate with girlfriends or replay worst-case scenarios in our minds. C. Lee Reed of Beachside, Florida recalls her father often told his kids to “suck it up” in the face of disappointment. “It sounds crazy but we learned to put on our big girl panties when things didn’t go our way,” Reed says. Now she uses the same phrase with her own daughter. It lightens the mood when emotions run high.
Dads’ emotional balance allows them to keep parenting problems in perspective. Crowe says she often panicked at her son’s inability to sleep through the night or the fact that he didn’t crawl when other babies did. But her husband took a longer view. “He taught me not to worry so much about the little things, unless they become a bigger concern,” says Crowe. A calm response is both comforting and practical.
Dads are present
Moms take pride in our super-human ability to do five things at once, but there is an undeniable downside. Multitasking prevents us from seizing the joys of the present moment. Lauren Nichols of Farmingdale, NY, praises her husband’s ability to be in the moment with their 4-year-old son. “I admire his ability to slow down and listen to everything our son has to say. It is as if he really remembers what it was like to be a little kid. They are two peas in a pod.”
Reed is inspired by her husband’s presence as well. While Reed, who calls herself “Helicopter Mom” is busy multitasking, her husband, “Just Plane Dad,” knows how to be fully present in the moment, she says. “When he spends time with our daughter, he’s not worried about the laundry or paying the bills. He is all there.” Tuning in completely allows dads to see children as growing, loving little people. And it reminds us all that we’re blessed by our children – and their dads – in big and small ways every day.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist who has gleaned many practical parenting strategies from her husband’s more laid-back approach. She is the author of Detachment Parenting.