Men and women parent differently: sociologist

Men and women parent differently: sociologist

  • June 22, 2011

OTTAWA - Children yearn to have a close relationship with their biological parents and they thrive when they are raised by their own mom and dad, an American sociologist told a family conference.

Contrary to popular belief, the gender of parents is relevant to a child’s outcomes in life, he said.

“Everything I have to say would have been common sense to my grandma,” Brad Wilcox from the University of Virginia told the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada annual conference.

“Now we have elaborate social science to prove grandma was right.”

Wilcox, a marriage and cohabitation researcher, said children do best when both parents participate in child rearing. He describes that as a counter-cultural and sometimes controversial statement in a society that endorses several different parenting models.

He told the conference that men and women parent differently and each make important contributions to a child’s development. Moms offer breastfeeding, understanding, communication and nurturing, he said.

They are better at identifying emotion and more in tune with the mood of their child. 

“Biology has primed women to read non-verbal cues,” he said.

This nurturing bent of mothers has caused most societies to conclude it is “logical to organize the bulk of child-rearing around” them, Wilcox said.

Around moms, babies feel safe and cared for and can relax. Around dads, babies’ eyes widen, their shoulders tighten because they expect a surprise and excitement, he said.

A father’s key contributions are in providing discipline, play, challenging the child and “loving mom,” he said.

“Money matters for families,” he said, stressing the role of “providership” usually attributed to fathers. Fathers are more likely to work more hours when kids come along, he said, and bring in about two-thirds of the family’s income. This contribution should not be prevented or minimized, he said.

Fathers excel in discipline, partly because of their strength, size and the fact that their deeper voices telegraph toughness, he said. They are less willing to bend family rules and their discipline is especially effective on teenaged boys.

Fathers also provide physical and even sometimes rough play that surprises and excites children, he said. Children are more likely to be stimulated by fathers and learn how to deal with aggression in a way that promotes social skills and intellectual development. A child roughhousing with his or her father quickly learns that kicking and biting are out of bounds, he said. 

“Kids who play with dads are more popular in school” and are equipped with better social skills, he said.

Fathers also encourage children to try novel activities and to be independent.

Wilcox stressed the importance of a father’s love for the mother in the development of boys and girls. It teaches boys to love and respect women and protects girls from entering into early sexual activity or other risky behaviour. There may even be a biological basis to the protective presence of the biological father in the home of girls, he said. The presence of the father may send out signals to other males to stay away.

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