I suppose there is a part of me that would love to say it is because it was so hard to get past all the amazing things we mothers do or because in our modern era mothers and fathers do so much of the same stuff that it would be hard to distinguish “father” things from “mother” things. While that may be true to some degree, I also know that there is a unique and invaluable quality that fathers bring to parenthood that can’t be replicated by mothers. That is not a dig at single parents; just the acknowledgment that fathers love and parent very differently. And it may be those differences that have me staring blankly at my computer screen. As a therapist I know the statistics and research when it comes to the role fathers play in their children’s lives. Fathers nurture, comfort, connect, and discipline in ways that are often different than mothers. And while neither is inherently better than the other, there is no doubt that each offers benefits to their children’s emotional development. When I look at my own family I know that my children learn empathy and compassion from their interactions with me. Their dad is a lot less “warm & fuzzy” than I am, but in his straight-to-the-point approach, he has taught them how to be resilient and push themselves to excel in spite of obstacles. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not the strong, silent type but he isn’t going to coddle them either, and I have learned that there is immense value in having that balance in their life.
Kids need to have someone who will kiss their knees when they fall just as much as they need to have someone brush off the dirt and send them on their way with little more than a glance at their bruises. As mothers we are usually pretty well trained in the art of comforting and soothing our children’s wounds, both physical and emotional, but in order to grow into well-adjusted adults they also need to learn to roll with the punches sometimes, to accept that love and connection comes in a variety of forms and that they can thrive in the world without mom always holding their hand. That is usually where the dads step in. They encourage children to let some of life’s storms roll off their back rather than always look for a warm lap to curl up in until it’s over. And they play and love in ways that are often quite different than us moms.
The running line at my house is that you need some pretty thick skin to live here. We all poke fun at one another on a pretty regular basis, but my husband definitely takes the top prize when it comes to joking around. He cracks jokes about things that are mortifying to our 12-year-old daughter and completely annoying to our teenage son. The areas of their life that I would never dream of making light of are all fair game for Dad. And while I chastise him at times for his lack of filter, I also know that he is giving our children invaluable experience for relationships. Many of his jokes are taken as just that–jokes. Everyone laughs and in the process our kids have learned that even the most sensitive areas of their life have room for humor when it comes with an equal measure of love.
But even more importantly, they are learning to speak up for themselves; to take stock of a situation and decide for themselves whether they like how they’ve been treated. If Dad’s joke didn’t go over so well, he can expect to hear about it. The exchange between my kids and their father when they don’t find his joke about their lack of facial hair, humorous, or they question his fashion sense, is something that can’t be replaced. They are learning how to express difficult emotions, like embarrassment or anger, in ways that are appropriate and honest. Apologies come easily when they are asked for and I know that the model for future relationships is crucial. They have firsthand experience that truly loving relationships will include some disagreement and hurt feelings occasionally but that it’s okay to say how you feel and expect for it to be valued.
Whether it’s roughhousing with younger kids, poking fun at the awkwardness of adolescence, or simply encouraging a kid to get up and keep playing after a fall, father’s encourage competency in areas that mothers often neglect. Not that we don’t believe in the value of being resilient or learning to navigate relationships where people are not tuned into your emotions all the time; it’s just harder for us. I don’t make fun of the things my husband does because my motherly intuition keeps me tuned in to every passing insecurity and vulnerability in my children. That is a wonderful thing except that it also keeps me from teaching them to get comfortable with those insecurities and vulnerabilities. I don’t want them to hurt and so I avoid these soft spots but I am indirectly setting them up for some hard lessons out in the world. Dads are no less interested in protecting their children. It’s priority number one for most of them; they just tend to be less emotionally in sync. But it is the moments where they miss the signal that the zit on someone’s chin is no laughing matter or that little Johnny is afraid of the big slide, that fathers do some of their best parenting. They push when we as mothers want to protect, but together we create an opportunity for our children to learn how to navigate life in balance.
ESTHER BOYKIN is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-owner of Group Therapy Associates, a psychotherapy practice in Haymarket. She specializes in working with couples and adolescents around relationship issues and trauma. She welcomes reader’s comments and questions and can reached at www.grouptherapyassociates.org or by calling 703-644-8041.