The Daddy Factor: Dad's Best Parenting Moves

Ever watch your partner with the kids and wonder, "What's he thinking?" It turns out there's a method to his caregiving madness.
Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy
Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy
Dad holding baby in air

One year at the holidays I decided to shake things up. We had installed a pellet stove, and my kids, Paul, 6, and Claire, 3, were worried that Santa couldn't get into the house because the fireplace was blocked. So on Christmas Eve I stuffed their presents into bags and lowered them from an upstairs bedroom window onto the garage roof. Then I slipped a note from Santa under the door explaining that he'd left the gifts outside. It was still dark when the kids shook us awake and led us downstairs. But when they saw the fireplace was bare and the milk and cookies hadn't been touched, they were shocked. I steered them toward the note, and then we helped them put on their boots and winter coats. Armed with flashlights, we searched the yard and, ultimately, the roof. I'll never forget their faces when they spotted those sacks.

No doubt, some moms would say that it's unhealthy for kids to break with family traditions and that someone could have landed in the E.R. fetching those presents. But I say it's a dad thing. Whether it's the way we discipline or diaper, protect or play, guys tend to have a unique caregiving style. I've seen it among my buddies, and I've heard about it endlessly from my wife, Maria, who has been baffled by some of my parenting decisions.

I may be overgeneralizing a bit. However, studies support the idea that fathers do things differently than mothers do. While our approach is often at odds with what the baby books suggest, experts say there's no sense trying to change who we are. "Children need two parents because each has different strengths," explains Steven E. Rhoads, Ph.D., the author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously. "Dads are more likely than moms to provide exciting and unexpected play." If you've ever wondered why your partner seems to put your kids in harm's way or feels the need to turn everything into a game, consider this your cheat sheet for understanding the way he operates.

Fathers Let Kids Flirt with Danger

Watch infant swim classes and you'll see that fathers tend to hold their paddling babies from behind so they're looking forward (encouraging exploration) whereas most mothers prefer to be in front of their child (providing comfort and protection). "Dads push kids to do things that are frightening and exciting, which helps them develop the ability to deal with unfamiliar situations," says Dr. Rhoads. This trend tends to continue throughout childhood. Mom's goal is to keep her kids safe, whereas Dad's is to get them to climb to the very top of the monkey bars, ride the extreme roller coaster, and sleep in the woods.

Why it's great The world is a dangerous place, but to thrive in it a child has to take some chances.

What can go wrong Swallowed pool water, skinned knees, falls from the top of those monkey bars ... all the things we suffered as kids -- and survived.

Do it his way The old adage of counting to 10 to thwart your anger works with anxiety too. When you see your child in a mildly risky situation (such as cresting a steep hill on his scooter), wait a few seconds before yelling, "Slow down!" Letting him navigate the situation himself will give his self-confidence a boost.

Dads Inject Fun into Everyday Activities

Fathers don't just feed babies; they pretend the spoon is a Black Hawk helicopter. They don't merely hold a child; they toss her in the air to simulate flying. (Unfortunately, they don't always think to space out meals and turbulent activity, which is why your child may spit up more often when Daddy is watching her.)

Why it's great Fathers instinctively realize that young children tend to learn through play, explains Joan Kinlan, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. Having her lunch flown in or being launched skyward helps impart the lessons that pureed yams are, in fact, edible and that she can trust Dad to catch her.

What can go wrong Sometimes Dad's too much fun. You don't want to be your child's best buddy. "Kids still need to see you as a parental figure," says Lisa Dunning, a family therapist in Denver and the author of Good Parents, Bad Parenting. "Otherwise, you'll have a hard time disciplining them."

Do it his way Be more creative with mundane tasks. If getting your kids to brush is like, well, pulling teeth, make up a goofy song to get them to cooperate. Feel free to use the one I sang nightly to my kids (to the tune of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"):

In my mouth I have some teeth
E-I-E-I-O.
And in my mouth I put my brush
E-I-E-I-O.
With a wiggle-jiggle here,
And a wiggle-jiggle there,
Here a wiggle, there a jiggle
Everywhere a wiggle-jiggle.
In my mouth I'll keep my teeth
E-I-E-I-O.

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