To get fathers to be more involved with their children, mothers should encourage dads to play a bigger role in their children’s upbringing — and then remember to step back and let them do just that, according to presenters Thursday at a symposium on fathers’ parenting patterns during the 2015 APA Annual Convention in Toronto.
Instead, some 21 percent of mothers engage in what’s known as “maternal gatekeeping,” where they might consciously or unconsciously dissuade fathers from helping with child-related chores or activities, or just do the tasks themselves, said Alex Rowell, a doctoral student at Ohio University, who presented at the symposium, “A Quantitative Evaluation of New Fatherhood: Implications for Policy and Practice.” That’s partly because of society’s expectations, standards and social validation of child-rearing duties, he said. And it can lead to dads taking a lesser role in parenting.
“[Maternal gatekeeping] affects paternal abilities, as in how confident fathers are in being able to do tasks like changing diapers or arranging playdates,” Rowell said. “There’s not that reinforcement of confidence, so [he might] start withdrawing a little bit.” Other barriers may include gender role conflict, professional biases and work-life balance, anxiety and feelings of low self-efficacy when it comes to parenting.
Still, dads have a greater role in parenting than is often thought, and their interaction with their children can have a big influence on how those children develop. According to what’s called the activation relationship theory, fathers interact with children differently than do mothers. They can help their children learn how to safely explore the world, and they bring a playful attitude to parenting that helps kids learn about appropriate social behavior.
“The central nervous system is spiked a little more through rough-and-tumble play, and the child has to learn to self-regulate,” Rowell said. Other studies suggest that a father’s involvement at various ages can protect against negative psychological conditions and influence a child’s motor development, school readiness and IQ.
Psychologists still are trying to tease out how family, mental health and social factors come into play for new fathers and to develop measures for their involvement, said Brian Cole, PhD, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University.
“Parenting doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and there’s no manual,” Cole said. “When you pair that with gender norms that discourage men from taking an active role in parenting, it’s important to understand what processes encourage men to actively engage in it.” Research so far suggests that social support is a significant factor.
Researchers in the field also are studying how these relationships play out with single- or same-sex parents.