Are mothers and fathers more or less the same? Do mothers “father” as well as fathers? Do fathers “mother” as well as mothers?
While we may know single parents doing their best to “father” and “mother” at the same time and we may know stay-at-home dads who seems to be flourishing, personal experience suggests that moms and dads are far from interchangeable. Stand up comics wouldn’t be able to make us laugh with their wry observations if men and women weren’t so different.
God’s design for the family is for a husband and a wife to fill different, but complementary, roles in the home. Even from nature we can see that God designed our sexual organs so that reproduction would involve a man and a woman. The raising of children is intended to be a couples-project, with a father and a mother excelling in different ways.
Are fathers and mothers really the same? Do mothers “father” and do fathers “mother” in the same way the other would do?
Canadian scholar, Andrea Doucet, has explored this question in her book Do Men Mother? Her extensive research with 118 male primary caregivers, including stay-at-home dads, led her to conclude that fathers do not “mother.” And that’s a good thing. Although mothering and fathering have much in common, there were persistent, critical differences that were important for children’s development.
To begin, fathers more often used fun and playfulness to connect with their children. No doubt, many a mother has wondered why her husband can’t seem to help himself from “tickling and tossing” their infant—while she stands beside him holding her breath in fear. And he can’t understand why all she wants to do is “coo and cuddle.” Yet as Doucet found, playfulness and fun are often critical modes of connection with children—even from infancy.
Fathers also more consistently made it a point to get their children outdoors to do physical activities with them. Almost intuitively they seemed to know that responding to the physical and developmental needs of their children was an important aspect of nurturing.
When fathers responded to children’s emotional hurts, they differed from mothers in their focus on fixing the problem rather than addressing the hurt feeling. While this did not appear to be particularly “nurturing” at first, the seeming “indifference” was useful— particularly as children grew older. They would seek out and share things with their dads precisely because of their measured, problem-solving responses. The “indifference” actually became a strategic form of nurturing in emotionally-charged situations.
Fathers were also more likely to encourage children’s risk taking—whether on the playground, in school work, or in trying new things. While mothers typically discouraged risk-taking, fathers guided their children in deciding how much risk to take and encouraged them in it. At the same time, fathers were more attuned to developing a child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual independence—in everything from children making their own lunches and tying their own shoes to doing household chores and making academic decisions.
Erickson concludes that the arguments for genderless parenting fall flat. Moms are not as good as dads; and dads are not as good as moms. Children need both. God can certainly give all sorts of grace to single parent families, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the design that nature, Scripture, and even scholarship says is the best.
Arguments for the non-essential father may reflect an effort to accept the reality that many children today grow up without their dads. But surely a more effective and compassionate approach would be to acknowledge the unique contributions of both mothers and fathers in their children’s lives, and then do what we can to ensure that becomes a reality for more children.
There may be something to the old-fashioned idea of manhood and womanhood after all.