The Magazine

What Fathers Do Best

Hint: Not the same things as mothers.

Jun 20, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 38 • By STEVEN E. RHOADS
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FATHER'S DAY NO LONGER ARRIVES without the national media highlighting Mr. Moms. The year before last, for example, Lisa Belkin of the New York Times described the life of one Michael Zorek, whose only job was taking care of his 14-month-old son Jeremy. Zorek, whose wife brought home a good salary as a corporate lawyer, felt he had become "remarkably good" at shopping, at cooking, and at entertaining his energetic toddler. He was angry at a parents' magazine whose essay contest was open only to mothers. "I'm the one who does the shopping, and I'm the one who does the cooking," he reasoned. "Why is it only sexist when women are excluded?"

This year the homemaking fathers even got to horn in on Mother's Day. On May 8, the Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section featured William McGee, a single dad who "couldn't help feeling excluded" by all the ads for products that "moms and kids" would both love. He mentioned, for example, the classic peanut butter ad, "Choosy Moms Choose Jif." McGee wanted advertisers to know that he is "one of many caring dads" who are choosy, too.

Brace yourselves for an onslaught of such features this week, even though, in the real world, there are still 58 moms staying home with minor children for every dad who does so. This is not just an accidental social arrangement, to be overcome once the media have sufficiently raised our consciousness about the joys of stay-at-home fatherhood. Mothers are loaded with estrogen and oxytocin, which draw them to young children and help induce them to tend to infants. And the babies themselves make it clear that they prefer their mothers. Even in families where fathers have taken a four-month-long paid parental leave to tend to their newborns, the fathers report that the babies prefer to be comforted by their mothers.

The problem with honoring fathers who do what mothers usually do--what used to be called "mothering"--is this: It suggests that fathers who do what most fathers do aren't contributing to their children's well-being. Yet we know this can't be true. Children who grow up in fatherless families are poorer, less healthy, less educated. They die much earlier, commit more crimes, and give birth to more babies out of wedlock.

What do most real-world dads do? When the kids get old enough, they teach them how to build and fix things and how to play sports. They are better than moms at teaching children how to deal with novelty and frustration, perhaps because they are more likely than mothers to encourage children to work out problems and address challenges themselves--from putting on their shoes to operating a new toy.

When the kids become older still, Dad is usually better than Mom at controlling unruly boys. Jennifer Roback Morse notes that all the surveys of who does what around the house never mention one of her husband's most important functions--he is responsible for glaring. When their son acts up, his glares just seem to have more effect than hers do.

Similarly, a fascinating study in the journal Criminology finds that female social ties in a neighborhood--borrowing food, helping with problems, having lunch together--are associated with much lower crime rates. Male social ties in the neighborhood have no effect on crime rates. But the beneficial effect of female ties almost completely disappears in communities dominated by fatherless families! You need husbands and fathers--what the authors call "family rooted men"--if the crime-fighting female ties are really to be effective. Perhaps mothers still say, "Just you wait until your father gets home," or its 21st-century equivalent.

Sometimes moms worry that their roughhousing husbands are making their boys more aggressive. But, in fact, fathers are teaching their sons how to play fight--don't bite, don't kick, stay away from the eyes--a form of play enjoyed by most boys around the world. On the playground, boys without fathers in the home are unpopular because they respond in a truly aggressive manner when other boys try to initiate rough-and-tumble play. A committee brought together by the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the National Research Council has concluded that "fathers, in effect, give children practice in regulating their own emotions and recognizing others' emotional cues."

Of course, dads do a lot for their daughters as well. For example, by providing a model of love for and fidelity to their wives, dads give teenage girls confidence that they can expect men to be interested in them for reasons beyond sex.

We could begin to do dads justice if we realized that their nature makes it unlikely that they will like intensive nurturing in the way that most mothers do. Testosterone inhibits nurturing. In both men and women high levels of testosterone are associated with less interest in babies. Low levels of testosterone are associated with a stronger than average interest in nurturing. If you inject a monkey mother with testosterone, she becomes less interested in her baby. And men have much more testosterone than women. Thus, in those two-career families where husband and wife are determined to share domestic and paid work equally, a common argument ensues because dads typically suggest that they get more paid child-care help; moms typically want less paid help and more time with their children.

If dads were as tormented as moms by prolonged absence from their children, we'd have more unhappiness and more fights over who gets to spend time with the children. By faithfully working at often boring jobs to provide for their families, dads make possible moms who can do less paid work and thereby produce less stressed and happier households. Dads deserve a lot of credit for simply making moms' nurturing of children possible. On Father's Day we should more often notice, and then honor, typical fatherly virtues and declare vive la difference.

Steven E. Rhoads is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously, newly available in paperback.