- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2014

Is the child playing Candyland being asked to sit still and follow the rules? It’s probably Mom doing the teaching.

Is the toddler is squealing with joy as the scary monster lumbers toward him? It’s probably Dad doing the chasing.

Differences in male-female parenting styles are not imaginary or based on stereotypes, according to an extensive survey released Monday.

Instead, differences are rooted in biology. From an evolutionary perspective, men and women share a strong interest in their offspring’s survival but pursue that goal in different ways, say the authors of “Mother Bodies, Father Bodies: How Parenthood Changes Us From the Inside Out.”

“Evolutionary success is not based on whether you survive — rather, success is measured by whether you are able to produce offspring who survive, reproduce, and carry your genes into future generations,” said Dr. Kathleen Kovner Kline and W. Bradford Wilcox, co-authors of the study, released by the Institute for American Values, the Center of the American Experiment and the Institute for Family Studies.

For mothers and fathers, that can mean starkly different strategies.

A parenting report like this is needed, they said, because the American family is coping with dramatic social change.

“In the past, the culture used to give us the recipe” for how men and women can best navigate marriage, work, family and home life.

But for many people, that “shared script … no longer exists” because of social trends such as mothers working outside the home, greater flexibility in sex roles, and delays in marriage and childbearing.

With more freedom, choice — and uncertainty — in family life, “it is more important than ever to help men and women understand the profound internal and external transformations that accompany parenthood,” wrote Dr. Kline, an affiliate faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school and chief medical officer of a Philadelphia community mental health center called The Consortium, and Mr. Wilcox, an associate sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Exciting fathers

The paper stems from a 2008 conference, partly funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that gathered scholars from natural and social sciences to discuss the sexes and parenthood. They found evidence that mothers and fathers can be affectionate and caring, resourceful, adept at problem-solving and firm disciplinarians.

An especially important finding is that men, like women, are changed by parenthood. Men even undergo physiological, hormonal transformations during pregnancy and as they raise their children, Mr. Wilcox said.

But mothers and fathers also display some basic, intrinsic differences, and in the best of circumstances create a “parental synergy” that benefits their children.

Consider playtime.

Fathers are known to tease and play in ways that are exciting and unpredictable — a biological characteristic. “Male monkeys show the same rough-and-tumble, physical style of play as American human fathers,” the study said.

This kind of play helps children understand that the world is surprising, is competitive, has risks and can be destabilizing, and that children have to learn to stand up for themselves. There is even evidence that children who play with their fathers a lot are likely to be popular with their peers.

Fathers are also likely to help establish a climate of order and self-control in families. They are more likely to act unilaterally, directing their children to do things without inquiring about what they want. They also can be firmer disciplinarians, spending less time reasoning or explaining their decisions to the miscreants, and children are more likely to comply with paternal demands than maternal demands.

As a result, boys who are close to their fathers are less likely to become delinquent; girls with fathers at home are less likely to become pregnant as teens.

Stable mothers

If the father’s style is geared to “push children out of the nest,” mothers tend to be the “more verbal, affectionate, predictable, comforting and affectionate parent … geared to make children feel at home in the nest.”

Taken together, “these two diverse parenting styles supply children with a varied parenting diet,” the report said.

Mothers are viewed as having a superior ability to regulate emotion, allowing them to establish strong attachments with their children. This in turn gives children a “secure emotional base” from which to navigate the emotional and social challenges of life, the paper said.

This persists in adolescence, when mothers, more than fathers, are more likely to try to “take their teenagers’ emotional temperature” and provide support and problem-solving tips for the ups and downs of life.

In general, and despite workplace and cultural changes, fathers tend to earn more money and mothers still tend to invest more time in parenting, especially when children are very young.

This means mothers typically take the lead on parental duties such as monitoring the children’s health, child care and shopping for clothing.

Mothers are also more likely to take steps to ensure their children have positive play experiences and introduce toys and games that have a predictable nature and are played by the rules.

In this sense, mothers are often seen as the responsible parent, setting limits and imposing penalties, even though the ultimate authority is the father, the report said.

A caveat is that such benefits are most robust when fathers live with the mothers of their children, which is why strengthening marriage is wise, Mr. Wilcox said.

Both children and men benefit when fathers are engaged with their families, day in and day out, “and marriage is an institution that more than any other” connects men to that, he said.

Same-sex questions

In a country where same-sex marriage has made huge political strides in recent years, any assertions about marriage and parenting are likely to be questioned.

Indeed, several federal judges, in approving same-sex marriage, have agreed with gay plaintiffs that two women or two men are just as good for a child as a mother and a father.

The new report responds to this issue briefly by agreeing that “there are some grounds” for thinking that same-sex parents could still provide a complementary form of parenting to their children. For instance, in some lesbian-headed homes, one woman works while the other cares for the children.

But the report maintains that there is little research about how complementary parenting styles operate in lesbian homes, and even less is known about how two men parent together. Thus more research is needed to see how these parenting styles operate and how they affect children, it said.

“My goal is not to pitch heterosexual couples raising children against homosexual couples raising children,” said Dr. Kline. “Any child who has two parents who get along reasonably well and are absolutely dedicated to the well-being of that child is a very fortunate child indeed.”

It will be interesting to see what emerging research will show, she added, “but the crisis in childhood is not about gay parents, it’s about heterosexual parents who cannot find a way to come together and create stable homes for their children.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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