Father: Not Just Another Mother

How fathering shapes security in children from the start

Posted Jun 16, 2015

Fathers don’t mother, just as mothers don’t father. It is obvious from the start; they are less likely to use baby talk, choosing real words instead. They like their babies activated when they are interacting with them, while mom is more likely to comfort and cuddle tight. Play and surprise are more common in dad-infant interaction than with mom, who often prefers soothing and regulating routine. Even the way a dad holds his baby –more commonly facing out than when mom does, hints at feeling his job might be different than hers; more of a ‘let’s see what the world has for us today’ than ‘I’ve got you safe and secure right here over my heart’.

Safety and security are huge concerns for today’s parents, both at home and in the wider world. So, which approach is more likely to raise a secure child? Both – especially when woven together. Attachment theory (John Bowlby’s psychological theory that says mother-child relationships form the foundation of all subsequent relationships, both secure and otherwise) has been around for half a century, and been found to be essentially useless in explaining what is going on between fathers and their children. Secure attachments between mothers and children seem most uniquely effective in providing comfort when the child is distressed, and children are often distressed in their early months and years. While fathers are committed to comforting their distressed children, there is a unique component to their interactions with their children. German researchers R. Grossman and P. Zimmerman have articulated this distinction as ‘fostering security in exploration’; fathers provide security using shared, controlled excitement through sensitive and sometimes challenging (‘You can do it!’) support as the child’s exploratory system gets stimulated by novelty. That roughhousing that is so common between men and their children serves a purpose; while it is fun and stimulating to both players, it also helps the father teach the child where the edge between play and trouble lies (‘No fingernails!’). When the father lets the child wander off a little further than the mom might at the park, he’s allowing the child exploration and novelty, retrieving the child when something looms to threaten the security of such adventure.

That distinction is worth celebrating this Father’s Day. It’s why dad is not just a stand-in for mom who so often bears the weight of being the ‘real parent’. Helping kids feel comforted when distressed is incredibly important to their sense of security, and so is the support they feel from being fathered when they start looking for the world beyond mom’s arms.

Some separate advice for parents (though you are SO in this together!);

Moms: Support the fathering figures in your children’s lives with your appreciation and respect. They are not just subbing for you; they are your tag team in keeping your children secure and safe, not just from the world, but in it.

Dads: (biological and otherwise) Turn off your devices and be in the moment with your kids. They need to know, trust and feel the real you. Take your unique role as ‘Securer of Exploration’ seriously; they do.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).