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PrattTribune - Pratt, KS
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Fathers matter

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  • A new book by Paul Raeburn, “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” tells us how to count and what to count as the ways. Raeburn reports on research that spells out the impact of fathers on their children’s development.
    As with all research, the attempt to correlate cause and effect can be misleading both as a generalization and as applied to individuals. The question also arises as to whether behavior is biologically or socially determined. Particularly with regard to male/female differences in behavior as parents, the history of social and cultural roles has shaped what is expected and considered acceptable.
    Psychoanalyst John Bowlby focused on what was seen as a biologically based need for attachment to a primary figure beyond the basic need to be fed. Since this was a period when care of children was primarily the mother’s role, much of early theoretical thinking was based on the mother as the important attachment figure. In the present era in which the roles of women have changed, along with the emphasis on attachment theory an effort has been made to expand the list of those able to fill that need. Much of the interest in fathers has been part of that effort.
    One difference noted between mothers and fathers is that father’s play is more physical in nature and that fathers are more expansive in letting children try things, such as climbing higher on the jungle gym. As with all behavior there are individual differences and exceptions.
    Parents of a three year old boy spoke to me recently about his behavior that was of concern to them. Mom’s concern was that the child was incredibly fast and could run faster than she could catch him. Refusing to hold her hand, he would break away running down the street. Although worried about sounding like a “helicopter parent,” she felt this was a real safety concern.
    I asked her if she knew if the child could stop himself when he reached the corner. Mom said she did not know and was afraid he would not. Dad, however, interjected that he knew the boy could and explained that he does so when Dad walks with him. It was interesting that Mom saw the behavior as the child wanting to break away from her, the mother. Dad said, “It has nothing to do with you. He needs to do that for himself – to break free like a big boy.”
    The mother said that the father was one of six boys while she was one of three girls. Is that why he could accept his son’s wish to “break free?” Is it because of male hormones? Or is it because of differences in culturally approved behavior for boys and girls when mom and dad were growing up? These are the imponderable questions that arise in discussions of gender behavioral differences.
    Page 2 of 2 - Whatever the basis of such differences, most often they can work to the benefit of children. Problems arise when these differences lead to strongly held opinions about how to respond to children. The key here is for parents to respect each other’s observations as adding something important to their understanding of their child. They each may have strengths and limitations in their outlook and responses. Talking them through rather than acting them out can lead to moderating the weaknesses and benefiting from the strengths.
    Mothers and fathers both matter. They may parent in different ways while contributing equally to a child’s development.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.
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