Kyle Pruett Talks About Fatherhood

Richard Louv
February 8, 1999

In 1988, Kyle Pruett wrote a seminal book called The Nurturing Father. In the early 1990s, he hosted his own parenting program on the Lifetime cable network, and, as a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Studies Center, he has tracked the progress of fatherhood more faithfully than almost anyone else in the country. Despite the fact that fatherlessness remains one of the toughest domestic issues the nation faces, says Pruett, the state of fatherhood is getting better.

He points to three concerns:

Valuing fatherhood
"There's a stronger sense today, among the public and among social scientists, that fathers are valuable," says Pruett. "There's also wider knowledge that men parent differently than women. Does the public believe fathers can parent as well as mothers? I'm not sure that view is widely held."


But fatherhood is rising steadily in the culture's esteem.

Workplaces, at least some of them, are treating fathers (as well as mothers) with more respect. Some not only provide family leave, as the law requires, but also encourage mothers and fathers to spend time with their babies when they're born." And if you just look at prime-time television, fathers are not nearly the authoritarian or vacuous figures they were 20 years ago, or the idiots they were 15 years ago. There are a number of pretty competent men who are looking after the kids on TV these days," he says.

In addition to gaining more attention in the workplace and the family (as well as politically), the culture is showing deeper appreciation for the subtleties and mysteries of the role. "The role of the father and the mother can certainly be different," he says. But it's important to understand that the roles of fathers and mothers are not cut and dried. Rather, says Pruett, they're a mosaic—pespecially in the minds of children. "When we ask children to tell us what matters to them, they say what matters most of all is the amount of time parents spend with them."

How they describe that time is not going to conform with any kind of gender expectation checklist, he says. "A child will say, 'I'd rather go hiking with Dad than with Mom because he doesn't worry about the bugs.' Or the child might say, 'I'd rather go hiking with Mom than with Dad because she doesn't get tired.'" To the child, the point isn't gender, but who's available to the child—and the particular talents and inclinations of the parent.

What we know about fatherhood
Still, research during the past decade or two has begun to illuminate some subtle differences between how men and women tend to parent. This small but growing body of research shows that during the first five years of a child's life, fathers are often more influential than mothers in how the child learns to manage his or her body, face novel social circumstances, and play.


One study of 6-week-old babies, using videotapes of parents interacting with their infants, suggests that our children are hard-wired at birth to respond differently to males and females. "Alert, fed, comfortable babies, when approached by their mothers, tended to relax, coo, and modulate their breathing and cardiovascular responses—as if to sort of say, 'Ah, here's Mom.' Then when the father approached, the babies' eyes tended to open, the shoulders would go up and the heart and respiratory systems were activated rather than calmed, as if to say, 'Here's Dad, let's party!'" This was, Pruett points out, way too early to be chalked up to social learning. Also, there was no indication that infants responded more to dads who looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than Wally Cox.

Other studies show other differences between fathers and mothers, though it's hard to sort nature from nurture, genetics from the social environment. For example, one study found that nine out of 10 times, mothers will pick up their babies in the same way, with the same movements, rhythm and posture. By contrast, fathers are much more unpredictable in how they will pick up their infants—by their feet, for instance, or from their sides. "This pattern may have something to do with the fact that fathers, in the early months of an infant's life, are usually peripheral figures. By the time dads come into contact with their babies, they may be expressing a need to be registered as important: 'Here I am, I'm your pop!' "

Fathers also tend to play differently with their children. Fathers tend to use fewer toys than mothers do, don't teach as often while playing with their kids, and are more likely to simply encourage their children—allow them to get a little bit frustrated—during their play. "Fathers tend to stay back a little bit further, and encourage the child's own problem solving capacities. They allow their children longer tether. At the park, for instance, the father will allow children to climb the jungle gym a few more rungs than the mother," says Pruett. "Some anthropologist might suggest a Darwinian reason: that fathers allow their kids a longer tether because fathers tend to have longer legs and can cover the distance in case the tiger comes out of the woods. In any case, children by the age of 2-1/2 begin to exploit that difference, to start asking for fathers to take them to the park rather than the mothers."

Most parents know that by the age of 2, 2-1/2, their children are making very different requests of each parent; they'll take Problem A to Dad and Problem B to Mom. "And they approach the father not just as a supplement to mother," adds Pruett.

This early interaction, if it's reliable, lays the groundwork for the child's middle years, and especially for adolescence. "If that early connection is made, Dad does not emerge as a new figure, he's the same person that a child has always known. He's perceived as a pretty sturdy figure who's going to be able to take it when the adolescent starts raising issues of autonomy. These kids are more likely to explore the adventure of adolescence without getting derailed by risk-taking behavior."

More research needs to be done on the relationship between fathers and daughters, Pruett says, and on the relationship between fathers and children with disabilities. One area he says deserves urgent study is the effect of family courts on men, women and children.

"The research on how fathers fare, legally and emotionally, during custody proceedings is almost nonexistent," he says. He also would like to see more research on how being a dad affects a man emotionally, physically and economically over the course of his life. "Some anecdotal evidence suggests that men who enjoy being fathers are more productive and keep their jobs longer," he says. "That's when fatherhood goes well, but it doesn't always go well."

Cross-cultural research, and promises to keep
Over the past five years, says Pruett, the most interesting contributions to the academic literature on fatherhood have come from cross-cultural studies—of the contributions of fathers in African-American, Latino and Asian communities. "There is a new world out there to be studied. There are things that we can learn from one another across the table, across the river, across the railroad tracks."


He points to studies in Los Angeles that describe second-generation Asian fathers playing a much larger role in the lives of their daughters. "Much more than in the past, they're expecting academic productivity and social competence from them. This is a different approach than the traditional Asian father, who usually had higher expectations and interest in the son than the daughter."

Within the Hispanic population, Pruett cites studies by, among other researchers, Ed Pitt of New York's Fatherhood Project, which show an increase in participation by fathers in daycare centers and after-school child-care centers.

"It used to be almost impossible to involve Hispanic fathers in early childhood education," according to Pruett. Partly, this was because of the traditional role of the father as an authoritarian figure who stabilized the family economically but was a hands-off caretaker during the first five years of a child's life. That role, of course, has not been limited to Hispanic Americans. But a study in Miami shows a marked change among Hispanic males there.

"Mothers are encouraging the fathers to become more involved at child-care centers because of their concern about violence. The presence of fathers brings a certain kind of stability and safety. And fathers are responding to their wives' encouragement," says Pruett.

In African-American communities, Pruett has seen positive change following the Million Man March, when hundreds of thousands of black men, and fathers of other races as well, assembled in Washington to demonstrate their commitment to children and family.

"I do a lot of work with inner-city schools and I have been struck by the number of kids, both African-American and white, who expressed interest in that event. They asked: 'What are those guys doing? How come they're taking off work? Are there any kids going? What are they saying? Is this about us?' Whatever the motivation the organizers originally had, the result was a stunning affirmation of fatherhood," Pruett says.

Similarly, the Promise Keepers movement is enhancing the public image of fatherhood, through huge rallies attended mainly by conservative Christians (but open to others as well), at which men pledge to be better husbands and fathers. Pruett says, "I worry about some of the self-righteousness that goes on in some of these movements, but I believe that anything that helps men think about the role they play as fathers is a good thing."


Richard Louv is Senior Editor of Connect for Kids and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is also author of "101 Things You Can Do for Our Children's Future" (Anchor) and "The Web of Life" (Conari).