Mothers are excellent at nurturing children. Fathers are good at riling them up before bedtime and testing their physical limits. We show kids how to cannonball into swimming pools, skateboard down steep hills and jump BMX bikes over poorly constructed plywood platforms.
We also instruct them in the fine art of belching, breaking wind, turning random objects into guns and lightsabers, toilet “pee-sword fighting,” and other uncouth behavior. We have to do this. It’s our job.
Moms and dads have different parenting styles. Moms comfort kids when they’re feeling down. They encourage them to discuss their problems. Dads teach them to look for a solution and move on. We wrestle our kids to the floor and tickle them and until they forget what they were depressed about. Moms express their disapproval with a tsk-tsk sound and accuse us of acting like children.
We take that as a compliment.
For decades it was assumed that the mother-child relationship was the most important one in a kid’s life. Within the last several decades, however, psychologists have realized just how much fathers matter. Raising kids is about balance. Moms are great caretakers. Dads have a more relaxed attitude toward parenting. Together, they form the perfect unit. When a child comes home crying with a scraped elbow, mom will console them with tender words. Dad will distract them by saying “Just walk it off” or “That’ll feel better once it stops hurting.”
In other words, moms protect children and dads give them self-confidence. We throw our kids into the air amid shouts of “Not so high.” We bounce them on the bed and mothers cry “Someone’s going to get hurt doing that.” Men know that cuts and scrapes are part of life. Women know to stock up on the bandages and antibiotic cream. Either of these parenting styles by themselves might spell disaster. Together, they keep kids safe while increasing their self-reliance.
If someone gets stuck on a homework problem, it’s usually mom who offers assistance. Dad will glance around the edge of his newspaper and shout “For God’s sake, give it another try.” When there’s a tantrum, mothers do their best to reason with a child. Fathers correct the problem with a stern glare and a threat to “jerk a knot in somebody’s tail.”
Fathers serve another important purpose. They give kids a realistic look into the male world. Girls learn from their dads how men should act toward women. Boys learn how to control their anger and deal with their masculinity in positive ways.
Kids learn lots of other cool stuff from their fathers, like not to bully or be bullied, and how to maintain a healthy balance between timidity and aggression. Dads roughhouse with their children in order to show them that kicking, scratching and biting are wrong. Kids learn self-control when a father says “Now, enough is enough,” and “Take that noise down a notch.”
One of my favorite confidence building moments as a father took place when my three-year-old son, Tyler, was learning to ride his bike. The training wheels were off, his helmet was on and he was ready to face the big challenge … . Well, almost.
”Naw, you’re just shedding worn skin” I said, applying a Band-Aid to the wound. “Keep it up. You’re doing great.”
And so it continued. There were a few more crashes that afternoon, and several more Band-Aids, but Tyler hung in there. At one point his mother stepped outside and shouted, “Don’t you think he’s had enough for one day?”
”We can’t give up now,” I hollered back. “He’s almost got it.”
On the next try Tyler kept his balance for a second or two longer. Then he was on his way, wobbling down the street on two wheels. I can still call up that old memory as if it was yesterday. It was every father’s Hallmark moment.
”Dad,” he called out nervously, “Do I have to do this?”
”Of course you do,” I replied. “This is the only day of the year zombies allow three-year-olds to ride their bikes without training wheels. I saw it on the news.”
”But I’m scared,” he said.
”Just keep your wits about you and stay balanced.”
Tyler tightened the chin strap on his helmet and sighed. “Okay, I guess I’m ready.”
I gave him a push and he was off. A few yards down the street his bike hit the curb. Tyler fell to the pavement and scraped his knee.
”Dad, I hurt myself,” he cried.