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  • How Men and Children Affect Each Other's Development (cont)
  • By Kyle D. Pruett, M.D.
  • Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, Connecticut
    Page 2
  • 28/02/2006 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 61 articles in 2006 )
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Another trait of male nurture was first described by Biller and Meredith (1974) in a series of studies designed to examine Biller's observation that mothers and fathers interacted differently with their babies when they explored the environment. They found that men encourage their babies' curiosity and, more specifically, encourage them actively to solve physical and intellectual challenges, even past the early signs of frustration. They found that mothers, while they encourage exploration, tend to be more conservative once the baby or toddler shows signs of frustration; they move in sooner than fathers to help the child or remove some obstacle.

Biller and Meredith also found that mothers tend to engage with infants and toddlers in more toy-mediated types of play and learning, while fathers tend to teach young children in the course of daily life activities. Fathers are more rough-and-tumble in their play with children than mothers - a fact well recognized in the ""father as jungle gym" paradigm. Both children and fathers seem to enjoy the tactile and sensory aspects of physical interaction. The father's body, unlike the mother's, does not play a role in the prenatal growth, delivery, and nursing of the infant. Fathers and babies both seem anxious to catch up in this domain - hence the attention to physical play and the eventual role of father-as-jungle-gym, extending from infancy to toddlerhood and beyond. The mother, whose own body has often felt more than sufficiently used by her offspring, particularly if she has been breast feeding, tends to enjoy rough-and-tumble play less. Babies wisely seek it less from mother and head for dad, a more willing partner.

Does paternal care matter to babies?

If fathers have the capacity to nurture their children competently but differently from mothers, does this matter to the children? Apparently so, according to two decades of research. Eight-week-old infants can discriminate between their fathers and their mothers, and respond in a differential way to their approach. Yogman (I981) compared videotapes of comfortably seated infants' response to their mothers' approach and their fathers'. In anticipation of their mothers' picking them up, babies settled in, slowed their heart and respiratory rates, and partially closed their eyes. When they expected their father to hold them, babies hunched up their shoulders, widened their eyes, and accelerated their heart and respiratory rates.

It is important to contemplate what this capacity is doing there in the "wiring" of the 6-to-8-week-old infant if we are to understand babies' and fathers' special responses to each other. These subtle face-to-face differences in play, modulation, verbal and physical contact are mutually appreciated by the child, the father, and the mother. They justify the father's feeling that his relationship with his baby is irreplaceably special. A 17 year-old brand-new father was "blown-away" when his baby opened her eyes wide in response to his reaching down to pick her up. He asked his daughter, "I'm not your momma - and you still want me?" This tiny bit of encouragement from his baby touched him and kept him coming back for more.

Positive effects of male involvement on children's development

Male involvement, supported by responses from babies and women, has measurable, positive effects on the development of children. Studying the effects of fathers' participation in the daily care and physical maintenance of infants, Pedersen and his colleagues found that the more actively involved a 6-month-old baby had been with his or her father, the higher that baby scored on the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (Pedersen, et al, 1980). Examining 2-month-old infants from middle income, two-parent families, Parke and Sawin (1975) found that the more fathers participated in bathing, feeding, diapering, and other routines of physical care, the more socially responsive the babies were. Furthermore, a year later these babies seemed more resilient in the face of stressful situations.

Male involvement has positive effects on the development of vulnerable, as well as typical, infants and young children. In their studies of preterm infants, Gaiter (1984) and Yogman (1987) found that early paternal involvement had a significant mitigating effect on the long-term vulnerability of these at-risk infants. Both researchers found that fathers who visited their babies in the hospital frequently, touched them, and talked with the nurses about them, were significantly more involved with their infants up to a year after discharge from the hospital. Potentially as important were data suggesting that that the more present and involved the father, the more rapid the weight gain and earlier the discharge of the baby. (Pause for a moment and think about how easy it is for the fathers in your NICU - or those you have known - to find their babies, touch them, and talk to you or anyone about how they are doing.)

The very vulnerability of the preterm infant is an important factor in eliciting protective and providing impulses from men. These babies' needs are so apparent that fathers, even though they are likely to be anxious and confused, can feel drawn to protect them even more than healthy newborns. This is fortunate, since mothers of preterm babies may also be anxious and even guilty about their babies' troubles, and may themselves be ill after giving birth; consequently, fathers of preterm infants are compelled to pick up even more slack in early caretaking responsibilities.

Stereotypes, expectations, roles, and variations in male nurturing

The stereotype of the male as his child's protector and provider has powerfully shaped the expectations of fathers' (and others') expectations of their roles. In traditional families, fathers have had an important and acknowledged additional role as the most significant "other-than-mother" in the baby's life. We have learned that infants can develop deep emotional attachments to their fathers which do not depend on the security they derive from their different attachment to their mothers. As we have noted earlier, even very young infants experience men as different from mothers in smell, size, style, feel, sound, and overall presence. Babies soon become aware that fathers simply aren't around as much as mothers; they seem to pop up here and there at odd times. When the father is there, he matters, but in ways that are different from mother. Through these experiences, babies start to learn from their fathers about comings and goings, transitions, separations, and loving, but non-maternal, nurturing. The father is thus a perfect resource for help in differentiating one's own self from one's own mother's self. That is why so many toddlers turn so decisively to fathers in the second year, as they practice their own autonomy and differentiation from their primary caretakers, mothers.

The father's role in helping his offspring develop a sense of their sexual identity has been recognized for some time. More than 20 years ago, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) examined the ways that fathers and men in general differentiate or shape children's sexual identity to conform with societal norms regarding gender-role expectations. They describe men's language, vocabulary, and physical handling styles that together serve to render sons "masculine" and daughters "feminine." Differences in nurturing that have to do with role and differences that are related to gender are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart.

A darker concern regarding male interest in children's sexuality arises here, knowing as we do the rates of sexual exploitation of young children by men, many of whom are also fathers. But here, too, research concerning the effect of male care on both man and child is encouraging. Hilda and Seymour Parker at the University of Utah studied several hundred families with histories of child sexual abuse and compared the predisposition's of stepfathers and biological fathers to abuse children. They found that men who participate in the physical care of a biological child or stepchild younger than three are significantly less likely than less-involved men to sexually abuse their own or anyone else's children later in life (Parker & Parker, 1987). The relationship of man and infant that develops in the context of physical care appears to prevent adults' exploitation of that intimacy as the child matures.

Of course the variability and range of male nurturing are as broad as in female nurturing. Most findings about distinctive patterns of male nurturing are merely trends; we all know fathers who resemble traditional mothers and mothers who resemble traditional fathers. But much of the research does seem to suggest that in their interactions with nurturing men, young children seem to be responding to more than just the "otherness" of the father. Men's distinctive styles of playing with and teaching very young children (which will evolve later into different styles of discipline) all serve to effect this particular pairing between father and baby - a relationship that does not seem to be the same as that between a baby and other "important-but-not-mother" nurturing adults.

Fathers as primary caregivers

What does paternal care look like when it is not simply supplemental or episodic? What does male nurturing look like, and how does it affect the growth and development of children, when it is subjected to the daily expectation of serving as the primary emotional and physical resource for one's children? For 12 years now, I have been conducting a small, longitudinal hypothesis-generating study of the developmental impact on young children of having a father as primary caregiver early in life (Pruett, 1985, 1987, 1992). My sample consists of 18 two-parent Hispanic, Caucasian, and African-American families from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Some of these parents had planned before having a child that the father would serve as primary caregiver; some had reached this decision through a process of compromise; and some felt forced into this arrangement by economic circumstances. None of them considered this arrangement as anything other than temporary.

Effects on children's development

At several intervals, beginning when the study children were from 2 to 22 months old, we assessed their development using the Yale Provence-Gesell Developmental Schedules. We last interviewed the children at the 10 year follow-up. After the first year, some interesting trends began to emerge:

l. These children raised primarily by men were active, vigorous, robust and thriving infants. They were also competent. The majority of infants functioned above expected norms on several categories, particularly adaptive-problem-solving and social adaptation.

2. Apart from the quantitatively scored aspects of these babies' performances, curious qualitative and stylistic characteristics emerged frequently. Most noticeably, these infants seemed especially comfortable with, and attracted to, stimulation from the external environment. They could quiet and regulate themselves, but their appetite for engaging the outer world and bringing it into their own was especially sharp.

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