Fathers offer unique lessons for their children

Judith Kleinfeld

My grown daughter Rachel told me an interesting story. She was biking with us when she was a little girl. It was raining, and she started to whine.

"Cut it out," her father told her harshly. "No whining. I can't stand it any more."

Jolted out of her complacency, she said. "You say I'm whining. What do you MEAN by that? What am I doing that sounds like whining to you?"

Her father explained what whining was -- tone of voice plus complaining with long, drawn out vowels. He demonstrated whining to her.

She hadn't actually known what whining was until her father explained.

This story stuck in my mind when I read the latest news on the benefits of fathering, much of it summarized in a Wall Street Journal column by Sue Shellenbarger, "The Secrets of Dads' Success." My review of the research on fatherhood came to similar conclusions.

"The way dads tend to interact has long-term benefits for kids, independent of those linked to good mothering," writes Shellenbarger. While warm and supportive mothers and fathers are always good for children, fathers and mothers tend to have distinctive ways of dealing with them.

Fathers challenge children more: Mothers are more likely to keep their child close and protect them. The classic example is the difference in the way parents hold their children. Mothers tend to hold babies facing them while fathers hold babies farther away. Fathers are more apt to pick up a baby, hold it at arm's length and bounce it around. Fathers more often carry babies on their shoulders, where they can see the world.

Fathers teach children to be more independent: I was always the hovering parent. I monitored the children's homework, worried about their school grades, and arranged their schedules. My husband was far more laid back about these sorts of things.

He was the one who introduced new activities, like teaching the children how to take complicated photographs, shoot and sail. Our friends had similar patterns. It was the dads who more often took their children hunting on small planes. Their fathers encouraged them to take risks.

Similar patterns were obvious in another couple we knew. The mother couldn't stop herself from picking up her child every time he whimpered. To teach her baby to sleep through the night, she had to sleep over at a friend's house. Her husband stayed home with the baby, dealt with his crying, and soon the child was able to sleep through the night just fine.

Fathers tend to have different interests: When our children had problems, I was the one who talked to them about the situation, helped them analyze their feelings and figure out other people's motives. Women tend to be more interested in the psychology of human relationships.

Men tend to be more interested in other fields, like history and politics. It was my husband who made the dinner table a battlefield of ideas.

Fathers teach children to bounce back from setbacks: Fathers, the research shows, teach kids to get on with it, ignore small injuries, and develop "resiliency," the ability to recover from trouble.

When my children had temper tantrums, my husband would typically put them in their rooms and ignore their outbursts. I was the one who would get upset.

"Fathers typically aren't as upset as mothers by kids' tantrums or bad behavior," writes Shellenbarger, drawing on a 2009 survey of 1,615 parents by Zero to Three, a nonprofit child-development research and policy organization.

"Only half as many fathers as mothers say their children's temper tantrums are one of their biggest challenges," she writes.

We shouldn't stereotype fathers and mothers. Still it's worth thinking about what fathers can do that is special.

When my daughter grew up, she realized her father had taught her a great deal, and not only how to recognize whining. He is the one she consults about all sorts of things, like why her car is making such peculiar noises. I get a little jealous of how close my daughter is to her father. But I'm glad he is able to help her with the problems in her own life.

Judith Kleinfeld, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Judith Kleinfeld