Dad bias: Why are fathers disproportionately praised for parenting their kids?
As we gear up for Father’s Day and many of us get ready to celebrate the man who taught us how to ride a bike and kept indiscretions from Mom that he knew would get us in trouble (it was OK to sneak a cookie before dinner as long as we shared it with him), the question of society’s views on fatherhood pops up.
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Those of us who are old enough to have families of our own now were likely raised by a father who did “Dad stuff” (see the aforementioned bike-riding lessons and the occasional homework help), but for the most part, everyday tasks like dinner, school runs and laundry were left up to mothers.
Today, as a new generation of dads takes on many of those responsibilities and more, they are often enthusiastically praised for doing things that merely fall under the umbrella of parenthood, and for which mothers are rarely acknowledged.
‘You’re a great father, man’
In an essay for Parents magazine, Ross McCammon wrote of an experience he had when his son was still an infant. He was walking home one Sunday morning with his baby strapped to his chest and a bag of groceries in each hand: “The boy and the food total about 35 pounds, evenly distributed, and I’m not struggling in the least,” he wrote.
He then passed a man in his 20s who took one look at him and said, “You’re a great father, man.”
McCammon was confused by this stranger’s unquestioning praise of his parenting prowess, because as far as he was concerned, it was a decidedly ordinary act.
“We need to move beyond the idea that a dad’s presence alone makes him great at the job. It’s condescending and undervalues the importance of a father’s regular engagement,” he wrote.
“Spending time with your child does not make you great. Strapping a baby to your chest and leaving the house does not make you great.”
Fathers have been increasingly vocal about not wanting to be referred to as “babysitters” when they’re out with their own children or seen as heroes.
“I get undue adulation all of the time for simply being out with my kid,” Adam Mansbach, author of the bestselling book Go the F**k to Sleep, said to The Atlantic. “Just because my kid isn’t freezing to death, I’m a great father.”
It’s considered ‘novel’ when fathers parent
What this comes down to is society’s inability to accept or at least recognize changing gender roles.
“In general, our traditional values are shifting. Men are becoming much more involved in raising the children and helping with household tasks,” says Joanna Seidel, a Toronto-based family therapist. “But women have traditionally been in the roles of taking care of the children and the home, so it’s considered novel when men do it.”
Aside from this being a welcome response to the realities of modern life — more women have full-time jobs and therefore cannot dedicate themselves entirely to raising the children and running a household the way they may have half a century ago — we’re also learning more and more that fathers’ hands-on involvement makes for better kids.
Studies have shown that fathers who are involved in their sons’ lives early on reduce their risk of homelessness later in life. Hands-on dads also raise kids with better cognitive abilities and fewer psychological problems.
Women may need to let go a little
But mothers (and clearly, some fathers too) take issue with just how much praise is being heaped on hands-on dads. Especially considering that in Canada, women still do 50 per cent more unpaid work (namely, housework) than men despite working full-time. In the U.K., women do 60 per cent more, while 79 per cent of American working moms say laundry responsibilities fall exclusively to them — plus 50 per cent of the cooking.
Seidel hears many of these same issues from her patients, although she says some of that is due to women being unable to let go of their stronghold on the homestead.
“Even if they work, some women set up the structure that they take on the majority of childcare and housework,” she says. “They will defer to the fathers for support or assistance, but they are the leaders.”
In other words, mothers need to let go a little. But along with that argument is the one that dads should take more advantage of the benefits offered to them in this modern age. Because it’s only by making what’s perhaps perceived as an unconventional decision that an act can be normalized over time.
“It’s also [reliant on things like] paternity leave and how it’s viewed in the workforce,” Seidel says. “It’s offered in many cases but is it honoured or encouraged?”
Dads deserve praise, but so do moms
McCammon recognizes when he’s reached peak parenting. In particular, he pointed to a night when his four-year-old son couldn’t fall asleep, so he crawled into bed with him and made up a whimsical and creative story that calmed him down and eventually lulled him to sleep.
“It was exactly what my son needed at exactly the time he needed it, and it involved thoughtfulness, creativity, and devotion. I was great that night,” he wrote.
And it’s a greatness that every parent, regardless of gender, can encompass, which is why both fathers and mothers seek a level playing field when it comes to praise and appreciation.
“The only reason fathers are being celebrated for carrying out ordinary tasks is because to some people, it’s an anomaly,” Seidel says. “But we’re moving towards a real transformation where it’ll be much more expected from fathers.”
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