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More on Gender, Kids, and Parenthood

Exploring the stereotype of fathers as clueless.

Last month I posted an entry regarding children and gender stereotypes from the perspective of the father of two young daughters. Several people emailed to share their own stories and observations. Some asked me whether I thought such concerns about gender stereotypes also applied to males. My answer? An absolute and unqualified yes.

Igor Stepovik/Shutterstock
Source: Igor Stepovik/Shutterstock

As I mentioned in that previous post, I recall very well the mystified and often irritated responses I'd get when strangers learned that my newborn in an airplane onesie or light blue baseball sweatshirt was actually a girl. But as I've seen first-hand among my friends with boys, hell hath no fury like the septuagenarian meeting a boy in pink. Such parents are not only failing to adequately signal their baby's gender, the thinking goes, they're also (gasp!) undermining their son's masculinity. As if anyone who soils his pants and cries when his mom leaves the room could ever be seen as that "masculine" to begin with, but that's another story...

There are most certainly societal expectations for boys as well as girls, expectations that color how boys are perceived and treated by others. Just as for girls (and perhaps even more so in some instances), boys who reveal interests that don't fit neatly into their own gender stereotype are likely to encounter responses of surprise, confusion, and even disapproval from others, kids and adult alike.

But all these questions regarding children and male stereotypes actually got me thinking even more about the one domain in my own life when I feel that I am often viewed negatively (or at least skeptically) because of my gender: parenting.  A lot of people seem to think that dads are clueless.

Mind you, it's hard for me to complain too much. As I just wrote, it's really the only time in my life that I feel like I'm being judged in a negatively stereotypical manner because of my gender. And I fully recognize that such a statement is one that only men in our society have the luxury of making. But it's nonetheless a frustrating experience, even as it's an enlightening one.

First and foremost, when you're a father with regular daytime childrearing responsibilities, you know you're going to be in the demographic minority wherever you go, from the playgroup to the playground, from the grocery store to the doctor's office. There are other fathers with kids around, of course—certainly more than there were when I was growing up. But you're constantly aware of being in the minority, and the nod and secret hand signals we exchange when crossing paths with fellow daytime fathers only goes so far to bolster camaraderie and brotherhood.

It feels just a tad more awkward for you to make small talk while pushing the swing as a dad than it does for most of the moms at the park; the moms all seem to know each other already. When your child acts out or otherwise causes a problem with another kid, you feel the eyes of the other parents on the back of your head. You wonder if the moms are all thinking, oh, big surprise that it was the kid with her dad who's throwing a tantrum.

Bottom line, you encounter the heightened sense of identity salience that women (and members of ethnic minority groups, male and female) encounter often in their daily lives. In this sense, I think it's actually a valuable experience for men, and particularly White men. It's good for us to see what it's like to operate under that spotlight, that added anxiety that you're not only being evaluated as an individual, but also as a proxy for an entire social category. Because we don't get that experience very often in life and it's hard to recognize its power without feeling it firsthand.

What exactly is the source of all this identity angst, you might ask? Aren't I being a bit melodramatic? Maybe. But here's just a handful of formative experiences I've had over the past several years as a daytime father in public:

• Being scolded by the elderly woman waiting next to me at the deli counter for not having socks on the infant daughter dangling happily from my chest in a Baby Bjorn carrier. "It's freezing in here," I was told quite sternly.

• Being hovered over like I was a teenager on my first babysitting job the time my 2-year-old daughter was stung by a bee at the park. "Oh, what happened, what happened?" another mom chirped frantically, practically yanking my daughter's leg away from me to inspect it herself. "Is she allergic?" she asked. "Do you have band-aids?" she added rapid-fire, before I could answer her first question. "I always bring extras," she next told me, handing me several under the assumption that I hadn't come prepared on my own.

• Being damned with the faint praise of those shocked to see a father with any parenting skill at all. At a park playgroup once, I told my 3-year-old that she could have one handful of animal crackers from the communal barrel and then would have to settle for the fruit that I had brought her (By the way, who decided to call those things "crackers"? I know cookies, and that's a blatant cookie. Calling it a cracker just makes it harder for parents to tell their kids they can't have more). When she finished the rationed cookies and was reminded that she couldn't have any more, she threw a bit of a fit. The director asked me if I wanted to give my daughter a few more cookies before she put them away, just to calm her down, to which I responded, "Not to reward this behavior." The director looked at me, stunned, and she said, "Well, good for you." To which I wanted to reply, if you knew it would be a bad move for me to give her more cookies, why did you ask me if I wanted to do it? How low have you set the bar of expectation for fathers that I can impress you by simply sticking to my guns and not giving into a whining child?

Sure, some of these interactions could have happened to mothers as well.  But I can't help but think that they're part of a pattern, that I get treated differently on the playground because I'm a man.  Nonetheless, for psychological reasons I recommend daytime parenting in public for any man in today's society. It's an eye-opening and enlightening experience. It gives you a sense of what it's like to act in an environment in which people expect you to demonstrate a certain amount of ineptitude just based on your category membership. It allows you to experience first-hand the burden of being judged simultaneously as an individual and a representative of a social group. And it bestows upon you an inescapable sense of humility because it becomes pretty hard to take yourself too seriously at work or elsewhere when two hours earlier you were on the floor of a men's room stall changing a dirty diaper with a limited supply of wet wipes because, of course, they don't have a diaper changing table in there.