Fathers are different from mothers. They look different, they sound different, they play in a different way, and they usually have a different approach to raising children than a mother does. And that’s a good thing. A boy learns from his father, without even realizing he’s doing it, what a man is and does. He learns about masculinity, about what men like and don’t like. Many adult men report that they either wanted to be “just like my dad”—or wanted to be his exact opposite. Fathers undoubtedly have a powerful influence on their growing sons, and it begins from the moment of birth.
Fatherhood in the Early Years
Imagine a couple who have just welcomed the birth of a son. Curt was thrilled when his wife Nancy announced that she was pregnant with their first child. He was even more excited when tests showed that the baby was a boy. Curt had wonderful memories of camping trips and fishing expeditions with his own dad, and he looked forward to giving his son a happy and loving childhood. He attended childbirth classes enthusiastically, listened to parenting books on tape as he drove to work each day, and was right beside Nancy when she gave birth to Alex.
Once Alex was at home, though, Curt began to feel unsure of how to behave. Alex was so small. Nancy nursed him and seemed to know just how to handle his burps, cries, and various physical needs. Curt loved watching his wife hold and care for him; Nancy laughed and said they’d need to build an extra room to store the photos Curt was taking. But when it came time for Curt to hold Alex, to feed him, or to bathe him, he felt clumsy and insecure. The baby seemed to be his mom’s territory, and suddenly those camping trips seemed a long time away.
Challenges for Dads
Fathers sometimes find their sons’ infancy challenging. They love the baby and delight in his noises and new activities, but infant care seems to be Mom’s province. Devoted mothers sometimes unwittingly prevent Dad from taking a more active role by insisting that the baby be held, fed, and rocked in a particular way (usually hers). Dads often disappear, falling back on work and providing for their new family. Sometimes they don’t reappear for years, if at all.
A father’s role in the raising of his children has changed dramatically over the past century or two. In generations past, sons expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, apprenticing in their work and in their approach to life. During the nineteenth century, however, fathers began to go out to work, and the measure of a man’s success slowly changed. Rather than the closeness of his family and the strength of his family business, a man’s worth could be measured in his income, the value of his house, and the size of his car. Parenting became “women’s work”; fathers were just too busy earning a living. And generations of boys grew up hungering for closeness with a father they barely knew, someone who came home only to eat dinner, look over homework, hear about the day’s misbehavior, and watch a little television.
Ross Parke, Ph.D., at the University of California at Riverside, found that fathers are just as good at reading a baby’s emotional cues as mothers are, but they respond in different ways. A father’s active play and stimulation may actually help a baby learn to be aware of his own internal state and to tolerate a wide range of people and activities.
Research shows that without a doubt, fathers are an integral part of their sons’ healthy emotional, physical, and cognitive growth from their first moments of life. Boys whose fathers love them and can demonstrate that love in consistent, caring ways have fewer problems later in life with peers, academics, and delinquent behavior. One study tracked a group of boys and girls for twenty-six years, exploring the roles of both mothers and fathers in nurturing emotional health and empathy. While the mother’s role was important, by far the most influential factor in a child’s emotional health was how involved the father was in a child’s care. In fact, the benefits of having an active, involved father during infancy and early childhood appear to last well into adolescence.