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  • How Men and Children Affect Each Other's Development
  • By Kyle D. Pruett, M.D.
  • Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, Connecticut
    Page 1
  • 28/02/2006 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 61 articles in 2006 )
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There is no such thing as a fatherless child

Children whose fathers are not in their daily lives start looking for their fathers as soon as it becomes clear to them that kids have moms and dads, even though their dad may not be immediately obvious. As a clinician and researcher observing the connections that young children seek from the adult world, I've seen the search countless times: Children who can't find their fathers make one up or appropriate one to their liking, whether or not they call him "Daddy." In a young child who has not felt some form of masculine nurture, the hunger for a paternal presence can be insatiable.

It is the presence of this hunger, beginning so early in children's lives, that tips us off to the overall significance of men in the lives of developing children. As a well-known maxim about the early years reminds us, appetites tend to serve the survival and well-being of the infant. The child's hunger for a father is no different.

The discussion that follows will review what we have come to understand about the unique contribution that men bring to the lives of young children, and how male presence works to promote development. We will also discuss how ongoing nurturing interaction with their own and other people's children affects men - often profoundly.

Much of the literature of the past several decades that has focused on men and young children focuses on biological fathers specifically. But to the child, emotional paternity is what matters, and it is the child who eventually designates emotional paternity. Consequently, "father-effect" research is likely to be more meaningful if we assume that the literature addresses the psychological, or "life" father, rather than the "birth" or biological father. Fathers do not "mother" any more than mothers ever "father." In their dealings with young children, men tend to resemble other men much more than they do women - whatever the biological relationships between the men and the children may be. From the beginning of children's lives, fathers handle babies differently than mothers do. At first glance, one might think that men's and women's differing levels of experience with infants might explain differences in handling, but close observations document that even men who are very experienced with children handle them differently from women. Not better not worse, but differently. How does this happen? And what difference - if any does it make to the baby?

The transition from "male" to "father"

Because it has been studied in some depth, the transition from "male" to "father" may be the best place to begin looking for answers to these questions. This transition is a very complex task, both psychologically and physically. Across many cultures, men are often profoundly involved in pregnancy and delivery. Their physiological involvement may range from weight gain to migrating aches and pains in the abdomen and mouth. Everyone knows about the food cravings of pregnant women, but their male partners have almost as many - especially for dairy products. In Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, a woman's pregnancy is considered confirmed when her spouse begins to crave carbohydrate-rich foods. Many expectant men experience increased - sometimes overwhelming - anxiety about being an adequate provider and protector, not to mention a competent nurturer. Dreams can change, indicating an important reorganization of the expectant father's own inner world.

But in the transition from male to father, for sheer economy of effect nothing quite matches the value of being present at the birth of one's own baby. (This is not to say that to miss it is to forever be left behind, as there are many opportunities to catch up.) The birthing experience gives a father, especially one who is new to the role, a leg up on becoming attached to his baby in a way that is unique to him and his own feelings about the child. This is something quite different from being just a mother's helper. The power of being there as a witness to the birth holds whether the father has had the chance to prepare for the event or not. He may be more comfortable with the physical event of birthing if he has been prepared, but the attachment experience between father and newborn seems to be an intrinsically powerful one.

Greenberg's classic study of the impact on fathers of witnessing their children's birth found that those who were present at delivery more accurately described their babies' moods and temperament and gave richer descriptions of their personalities at 3 and 6 months (1974). He used the term "engrossment" to describe the phenomenon of fathers who felt "so in love" with this being they had never met, wanting (often to their own amazement) to spend hours gazing at or touching their newborns.

But the period immediately after birth can find fathers vulnerable as well as engrossed. We are often so anxious to affirm a close and uninterrupted attachment between baby and mother that in the service of early "mother - infant bonding" we unwittingly disrupt the baby's early connection to father. Fathers so often feel that they should - or are directly told to - back off from mother and newborn that some observers call the baby's first three months of life the "fourth trimester" of pregnancy, as far as the father is concerned. Zaslow (1981) reports that two-thirds of first time fathers describe having some form of "the blues" during this time period. They feel less control over their own lives, inadequate to the task at hand, and marginalized in their relationship with their spouse. Interestingly, the best treatment for fathers' depressed mood was more contact with the baby.

The vulnerability of new fathers can be hard for new mothers to fathom. A new mothers is anxious to enjoy and practice her new maternal competence. Having her baby respond to her care of him or her is the best antidote to all her worry and concern about her inadequacy. Precisely the same is true for fathers. But since so many mothers have had practice in caregiving before having their own babies, and because they feel the enduring pressure of culture and society to demonstrate their competence, they feel particularly invested in practicing to "get it right." When this is overdone, father can feel excluded and back off. In short order, the mother has the exclusivity she wants, but she has unwittingly lost her most important partner in care of the child.

Francis Grossman describes this very common phenomenon as "gatekeeping": The mother "allows" the father into the child's life to perform certain tasks she deems him adequate to accomplish, rather than supporting the father in developing his own unique and lasting attachment to the child, based on their mutual experience.

What we know about paternal care

When men do care for children, decades-old research informs us, they nurture, interact with, and rear children competently but differently from women. Not worse, not better - differently.

Studies of the details of paternal care are revealing. Michael Lamb, the pioneer developmental psychologist now at the National Institute of Mental Health, examined the biological responses of men to videotapes of crying, obviously distressed infants and compared them to women's responses. He found that men's and women's autonomic nervous system and circulator system responses (increased pulse rate, quickened respirations, overall sensory activation) and their subsequent relaxation response to the comforted infant were indistinguishable from each other (Lamb, 1978). Parke and Sawin found that fathers fed their babies as effectively and efficiently as did their spouses, adapting to individual tempers and sensitivities and knowing when to stop, soothe and burp. This happened whether or not fathers had previous experience with other infants (Parke & Sawin, 1975).

Once researchers established that men are not biologically handicapped as nurturing figures, they began to look at what fathers actually do in nurturing their children that is either like or unlike mothering. Observing first-time parents, Parke and Sawin were intrigued by the ways in which fathers and mothers handle their babies' bodies. Mothers typically pick up their infants in a low-keyed, quiet manner that tends to look the same over time, establishing a rhythm that is predictable. Fathers, in contrast, seem to prefer to activate their babies, handling them differently almost every time they pick them up. They play with or stimulate them before they actually hold them to their bodies. This trait is expanded over time to include more playful and novel interaction in general than mothers tend to use in their daily care of their babies (Parke & Sawin, 1975).

We have all noted fathers' playfulness, which also seems to intrigue and delight most babies, although it can be disorganizing to some infants, especially if the father is not aware that he is overdoing it. On a recent trip, as our plane waited interminably on the end of the runway for permission to depart, a father took his fussing 13-month-old daughter from his wife in an apparent attempt to give them all some respite. With his free hand, he unscrewed the fresh-air ports overhead and directed his child's attention to the flow of air by pointing and animating his own expression. The child quieted, looked at the port, reached up with her hand, discovered the flow of air through her fingers, returned the fathers wide-eyed look, and played contentedly. The mother winced as her daughter squealed a bit too loudly in delight. The baby extended the play by crawling up her father's face to get closer to the port, staying precariously balanced on his hand. Now she had eye contact with the entire planeload of adults, with whom she proceeded to play peek-a-boo. Her mother warmly called her a "flirt;' as the father defended her, saying, "Leave her alone; at least she's not howling."

Fathers' adaptive style seems rooted in the joint pleasure that fathers and children take in each other from very early on, earlier then we can explain simply on the basis of shared experience. As a consultant to newborn intensive care units, I often noticed brand-new fathers, even in delivery rooms, speak to their newborns in a vocal pitch that is higher than their normal conversational voice. Intrigued by this phenomenon, a graduate student asked dozens of these men why they were speaking to their babies in this unusual manner. One third said that the babies seemed to enjoy it (hours after birth), while the remainder had no idea they were even doing it. Neonatalogists know that newborn infants respond better to higher - than lower-pitched verbal stimuli. Somehow fathers have this information without going to medical school. My own hunch is that men have many nurturing instincts and predispositions that we are only beginning to understand.



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