When new dads have interactions with their baby judged by a "gatekeeping" partner it can lead to less involvement as they grow older.
Ah the good-old dopey dad is out of his depth. Look, he’s put his pug dog inside his baby carrier instead of his son. Oh, now he’s putting his baby’s nappy on with a staple gun. What’s for dinner? It can only end with a spaghetti bowl on bubby’s head.
All very funny. In real life (for real dads), not so much. I know these are just stereotypes from a long tradition of inept dads bumbling their way through shows like Modern Family, Everybody Loves Raymond, Family Guy, and The Simpsons, but it can grow a bit tired. We are better (or we’d like to be).
And for us fellas, a carrot (even a pureed one) is better than a stick — particularly at home. In fact, a new study has found that new dads who feel judged or derided by their partners for having poor parenting skills are more likely to take a step back and be less involved with their kids as they grow older.
Beware of ‘maternal gatekeeping’
The study, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, focussed on 182 couples as they interacted with their children after three months, and then again six months later.
The researchers concluded that a lack of involvement from new fathers may be caused by “maternal gatekeeping”. They describe this as the habit some mothers have of controlling the access to a new baby.
Some of this is just natural, as the report says, because mothers are nursing the child and thus have a natural bond. But some of it is also social, as some mums feel it is their role to supervise all aspects of the baby’s life. (It’s a given that mums are subjected to extreme levels of scrutiny themselves.)
What this sounds like in practice for a new dad can be: “No, you’re doing it wrong, give him/her back to me (the ‘you idiot’ at this point of the sentence is often silent).”
I should point out that my wife was usually fully justified when saying this to me, as I was, and still am, largely incompetent around babies, for some reason. But I’ve seen other men, even those naturally gifted at it, chided in a similar fashion.
It can get even worse, though, according to the study, which found more extreme tendencies known as “maternal gate closing”, which can sap new dads of what little confidence they might have, and may lead to them avoiding baby-father interactions.
Sadly, the study found that, with the couples where this was happening, the result was noticeable when they visited those families for the second time, with dads in those families being less engaged and warm when playing with their nine-month-old kids.
“Fathers show lower-quality parenting, as indicated by decreased sensitivity, positive regard, and engagement, when they perceived maternal gate-closing earlier on,” Lauren Altenburger, the lead author of the study from Ohio State University, told Time magazine.
“Becoming a parent is a significant life course event. If both parents work together as a team to communicate openly about parenting strategies, positive consequences for fathers’ parenting quality, and, in turn, child adjustment may follow.”
Other studies have shown that the quality of fathers’ parenting work is more susceptible to environmental influences than mothers are.
Stick with it for everyone’s sake
It’s very easy to have your confidence sapped as a new dad, because it often feels like we’re attempting to do something that, for many of us, doesn’t come naturally.
You know this already, inherently, of course, but it’s vital that you stick with it, no matter what, for your own good, (parenting really can go on for a while, it’s going to be more fun if you’re taking part), but also for the good of your children.
And research has now proven how handy it is to have us dads around. A team of British researchers from various top-shelf colleges, including Oxford University, found that an active male role in the early stages of a baby’s life produced better results in cognitive tests by the age of two.
And the value of that male input could actually be detected from as young as three months. Yes, you could actually be making them smarter by getting hands on early on.
The study, published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, further pointed out that men have a “more stimulating, vigorous” style of parenting, which encouraged risk-taking and explorative tendencies in tiny babies. Which sounds kind of worrying, but apparently isn’t.
It concluded that: “It is likely that remote fathers use fewer verbal and nonverbal strategies to communicate with their infants, thereby reducing the infant’s social learning experience. More withdrawn fathers also may provide a less stimulating social environment, which may thus [have an] impact [on] the child’s cognitive skills.”
Lead professor Paul Ramchandani, added: “Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development, and that really hasn’t been shown much before.”
So please don’t diss the dads. We need encouraging.