Dads can parent as well as mothers

Armin Brott / McClatchy-Tribune News Service /

Q: I’m seeing news stories all the time about how stay-at-home dads are becoming more common, and how fathers of all kinds are taking on a greater share of the parenting workload. While that sounds like it should be a good thing, I’m worried about how the kids will do. I have nothing against fathers, but after all, mothers are naturally better parents than fathers, aren’t they? So doesn’t it follow that kids would do better in life if they were raised primarily by their mothers?

A: In a word. “No.” I’ve been doing research and writing about fathers for nearly 20 years and I can assure you that, there’s no scientific evidence to support the claim that women are naturally better at parenting than men. No question, they’re better at being pregnant, giving birth and breast-feeding, but when it comes to actually caring for children, the most-important factor is not the sex of the parent, but the amount of time the parent spends with the child.

That bit of information was discovered several decades ago by my colleague, Ross Parke (it’s also what got me passionate about working with fathers). And just recently, a team of French scientists found the very same thing. What I found most surprising about their “discovery” is that they were actually surprised.

The study, led by Erik Gustafsson of the University de Saint-Etienne, looked at 29 babies younger than 6 months of age and their parents. The researchers recorded the babies crying and then played them for the parents, asking the mom and dad to identify which baby was theirs. The hypothesis was that while being able to pick your baby’s cry out of a crowd doesn’t mean you’re a good parent, it does indicate that you’re at least paying attention.

Here’s what Gustafsson and his team found: Of the 14 dads who spent an average of four hours a day (or more) with their baby, 13 identified their own child 98 percent of the time. The 14th was right 90 percent. How’d the moms do? Exactly the same as the dads — as long as they spent at least four hours per day with their baby.

Clearly, one’s parenting abilities aren’t determined by biology, but by on-the-job training. Parke and I debunked the moms-are-biologically-better-at-parenting-than-dads myth (and a number of others) in our book, “Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Father They Want to Be.”

Speaking of debunking myths about father, another one just bit the dust last week in England. Turns out that, gasp, men want to be fathers just as much as women want to be mothers. Again, everyone — except for millions of dads who could have told you the same thing — seems so surprised. What (or, more accurately, who) has the British Sociological Society in such a tizzy is researcher Robin Hadley, who studies men who are involuntarily childless. Hadley says that his research “challenges the common idea that women are much more likely to want to have children than men.” He found that 4 out of 10 childless men feel depressed about the situation, compared with 3 out of 10 women and 7 out of 10 men confess to a yearning to have a child.

The big difference between childless men and women is in the emotions they express. Toeing stereotypical gender lines, men tended to feel angry, isolated, jealous and sad. And while women may have felt some of the same emotions, they added one that didn’t show up on men’s radar at all: guilt.