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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 4
  • 28/02/2006 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 61 articles in 2006 )
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Page 3

Varieties of fathering

Like motherhood, fatherhood - especially "emotional fatherhood" - can be expressed at various levels of intensity and competence. A single child may have a biological father, one or more stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, and other important males present in his or her life. Distinctions among these "significant others" may be simply academic from the perspective of the young child who has chosen, among all the possibilities, who emotionally fathers him or her. Consequently, it is with caution that I discuss research that has focused on masculine nurturance of young children in a variety of special circumstances.

Single custodial fathers, whose numbers have quadrupled since the 1980 census, do a decent job with their children. DeFrain and Eirick (1981) describe them as a reasonably successful group, educated, usually in managerial positions, earning incomes equal to or above the national average, and open-minded, flexible in their fathering, and responsive to their children's needs. Given the impact of poverty on children's development in this country, judges find it difficult to ignore the likely economic benefits of placing children with fathers when assigning custody in controversial divorce cases in which both parties seem equally competent (or equally incompetent). Still, as Kline, Pruett and Santangelo (in press) have shown, the process of divorce itself can be a tremendous threat to the paternal presence in the life of children and needs substantial reform before it can become a less toxic contaminant in the child's life. Stepfathering, which is as prone to negative stereotypes as stepmothering, is increasingly common in this country and increasingly complex, given the layering and mixture of biological and non-biological children across generations in some blended families. Research suggests that stepfathers may be more attentive to the needs of their stepchildren and less arbitrary in their parenting style than are many fathers who are living with the mothers of their biological children.

Teenage fathers, unless they receive support and guidance from family, community mentors or professionals, are as uninformed about the needs of their children as are teenage mothers. Surprisingly, however, most teen fathers feel close to their partners and to their babies. Many wish to be included in the rearing of their children (Greenberg, l995).

Grandfatherhood may offer many men the perfect opportunity for flagrant expression of unambivalent male nurturing. As my own father observed, "By this point in my life, I have either made it or not made it, and my grandchildren couldn't care less. They love me without judgment, and I return the favor without a second thought." The special release from splitting one's life and heart between providing for and being with one's own children that characterizes non-custodial grandparenthood catalyzes an unselfconscious affection that many men were unable to show their own children, but feel perfectly comfortable sharing with their grandchildren.

Children whose own fathers have been unavailable during their nurturing years can pull very hard for male nurturance from a grandfather, and it is a wise mother and grandmother who support this connection. As one single mother said at a ZERO TO THREE National Training Institute, "I can tell my son to be a man, but I can t show him." Do not overlook granddad. Often, he is just waiting to be asked. Many of the more successful intervention programs for at-risk children that have worked to increase their male presence have benefited especially from the grandfather dynamic. What a grandfather (or grandfather figure) may have lost in speed and strength, he has usually compensated for in patience, wisdom, grace, and even humor. Grandparenting can go so well that the middle generation can feel envy over the absence of such closeness in their own growing up.

Non-paternal males can play critical roles in the lives of children who do not have access to their own fathers on a regular basis. Mothers may not find it especially easy to recruit a masculine presence, especially if the absence of the child's father has to do with negative experiences in her own life with men. But we know that children whose fathers are absent tend to be children who have few if any male models of nurturing or care anywhere in their life. These children can be at increased risk for constricted dependency on their often exhausted, lonely mothers, knowing no "significant other" to help them feel secure as they search for autonomy from her.

Men in the community - coaches, teachers, neighbors, husbands of friends, men from the family 's religious community, Big Brothers, friends' dads and grandfathers, uncles - can all bring the male presence into the lives of even very young children who are hungry to discover what the masculine presence has to offer them. Nurturing men can be quiet, loud, strong, ascetic, thoughtful, or action-oriented. They can represent the usual variety, of human experience. What is important is that they want to be in the lives of young children. It is we who have to think of the roles they can play and facilitate their involvement. Program is our problem, not theirs. Since we are still working to define what it is that young children seek from men, why it matters to be held in their arms and minds, our net must be cast wide and often.

Lessons from the nursery

In closing, it seems wise to return to where we shall always learn most about early development - the nursery. There we will see that the human drive to nurture and care is so powerful that it is equally present in boys and girls as toddlers. The 30-month-old boy is just as devoted to bathing, feeding, dressing, changing, napping, and burping his baby doll as is his female pal. It is so important to get this behavior right that the little boy's joy in practice seems endless. Yet once the societal implications of being either male or female enter the picture in the next couple of years, many little boys begin to drift inexorably into the block corner, never to return. But if you observe carefully, you will see a longing look over a young boy's shoulder from time to time, as if he still wishes that he could hang out where the real action is without being called, or feeling like, "a baby."

As norms evolve and we see more and more men and fathers valuing and sustaining their own nurturing capacities into adulthood, it will be easier for our male and female children to hang on the power of nurturing competence across gender roles and expectations, taking it with them into the block corner. Because men are increasing their contact with their kids, the male and paternal presence is likely to become even more influential. Pleck has found that fathers have increased their accessibility to their children by 50 percent since the 1970s and early 1980s (Pleck, 1997). Nurturing competence starts out so strong, and for such excellent reasons -
given a little support, it never really needs to disappear. And a little support can help a lot, precisely because the fathering research has shown that fathering is influenced even more than mothering by contextual forces in the family and community (Doherty, Koumeski, & Erickson, 1996).

The connections made in the intimacy of the nurturing domain have enduring effects on the man and baby who connect there. Our programs, our research, our interventions, and our policies need to foster these connections. Missed opportunities also have enduring effects. Edited from the Zero to Three Journal, August/September 1997 (Vol. 18:1)


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