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WETZSTEIN: Playing with dads is good for kids

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Don't eat me. I have a wife and kids. Eat them."

- Homer Simpson to the aliens who abducted the Simpson family

All righty now. What would Father's Day be without a little hair of the Homie?

I am sure there are evolutionary and otherwise profound psychological reasons for why, of all the fathers in America, the most recognizable one in 2008 is a cartoon buffoon.

But we will leave that scholarly inquiry for another time. Today, while we are enjoying our moments with Dad and his new tie/cigar/Craftsman tool, let's have a serious talk about fun. As in how fathers are essential play partners for children.

And you thought fathers were just well-stocked ATMs.

One of our nation's favorite activities is comparing the behavior of mothers and fathers. Good mothers are known for their savvy domestic leadership, culinary prowess, verbal skills, emotional intelligence and nurturing behavior.

Fathers are known for introducing kids to corny jokes, weird noises made with armpits, goofy faces and the fine art of throwing things in a general direction. Such as wet towels at the hamper. The television remote at the person who asked for it. The open bag of chips at ... oh, you know what I mean.

Science, however, actually has redeemed fatherly playfulness. It's not only fun for kids, it's remarkably beneficial, research says.

According to the National Fatherhood Initiative's "Father Facts," fourth and fifth editions:

mChildren whose fathers regularly play with them are more competent in their peer relationships and more popular with peers than children whose dads don't play with them a lot.

mFather-child outings are associated with fewer behavior problems, higher levels of sociability and better academic performances in the children.

mInfants whose fathers handle them a lot with affection are much more likely to be securely attached than other babies.

mPremature infants whose fathers spend time playing with them have better cognitive outcomes at age 3 than other preemies.

mFathers' play is linked to children's intellectual development and social character.

Science also shows that it is not the mothers' imagination that fathers play longer with the kids than they (the mothers) do. According to one study, when dads are alone with babies, they spend 45 percent of their time playing with them, compared with moms, who spend 20 percent or less of their solo time with babies playing with them.

This also would explain the stinky, overflowing diaper pail after Dad has taken care of the baby for the afternoon.

Moreover, fathers and mothers play differently: Fathers like activities that are social, physically active, team-oriented and foster independence, while mothers tend to gravitate to activities that are thoughtful, verbal and relatively quiet (i.e., coloring in a book, making a craft).

A father's style of caring is "action, playfulness and zest," Harvard Medical School psychology professor William S. Pollack said in his 2001 book, "Real Boys Workbook."

"Research shows that right from the start, fathers tend to arouse their babies' emotions and stimulate them, while mothers tend to want to soothe their boy children and shield them from stimulation," wrote Mr. Pollack.

Mothers might worry when dad "tosses the baby playfully, bounces him around, or pretends to gobble up his little feet," he added. But "this kind of extra stimulus is actually good for a boy's emotional development," because it helps the child experience, tolerate and manage a wide range of emotions.

So, to sum up: When Dad blows raspberries on the baby's tummy, lets the preschooler ride on his back, wrestles with the sixth-grader and plays catch with the teen, he's making a unique contribution to the kids' emotional, intellectual and social development.

Sure, it looks like they're just goofing off and not cleaning their rooms/mowing the grass/getting ready for church, Mom. But hundreds of studies can't be wrong, and those studies say that when fathers play with their kids, it pays off - with big dividends.

And that's no "D'oh."

-- Cheryl Wetzstein's "On the Family" column appears Tuesday and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.