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Mothers and Fathers: The Same or Different?

October 1, 2016/by Betty Gewirtz

Question: Making generalizations can be risky. At the same time I can’t help but notice that fathers behave differently with their children than mothers do. For example, I often see fathers holding their babies high above their heads, and the baby reacts gleefully. Fathers tend to let their toddlers take modest risks, letting go of their hand and allowing the child to explore his or her surroundings, while keeping a watchful eye. Mothers are more cautious and seem particularly sensitive to their child’s need for comfort when her child is distressed. Do fathers have a different parenting style than mothers?

Response: No generalization about gender similarities and differences always holds true; however, research indicates that fathers typically provide excitement, react less predictably in their interactions with their children, and tend to support them in exploring new challenges. Mothers are generally more predictable. They tend to calm their children, are sought after when it’s time for bed or when soothing is needed after an accident or injury. When children are playful, fathers may be more open to having their body climbed on or they may engage in rough and tumble play with their children. Mothers tend to use their bodies to nurse and comfort their children.

While much attention is focused on the mother-child bond, interest and research also highlight the different and important contributions that fathers make to their child’s development through their own parenting style. As we learn more about a child’s attachment with each parent, research points to a mother’s comforting response to her child’s stress. The mother’s response helps the child develop a sense that its environment is predictable and safe. The child manages stress through the security of the mother-child bond.

Alternatively, fathers tend to sensitively challenge the child who often responds with excitement. With the father’s monitoring, the child moves toward controlling excitement and behavior. Children feel encouraged to explore and learn to feel more in control of their excitable responses.

Clearly, warmth, responsive care, and setting limits are important benefits to gain from each parent. Mothers and fathers are more than fill-ins for one another. Each makes a unique contribution to their child’s development and sense of security in the world.

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Betty Gewirtz is a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a parent educator in FamilyKind’s STEP program.

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