Different parenting styles can spark a power struggle between new dads and mums. Here's how to meet in the middle.
“No, you’re doing it all wrong! Just give the baby back to me!”
It rarely takes a new dad long to hear these words, and sadly, some of us don’t push back.
Instead, after repeated cut downs, we retreat to the sidelines, believing mum is the parenting expert who always knows best.
In actual fact, it’s to the benefit of everyone – mum, dad and baby – if fathers see themselves as equal partners in child rearing rather than ‘substitute teachers’.
It might be expected that someone like me, a dad who is heavily involved in raising his children, would say that. But lots of parenting experts – including the female ones – agree.
Dympna Kennedy, is one of Australia’s most qualified and respected parenting coaches. She’s also the founder of Creating Balance – a business that draws on her extensive real-world experience along with the latest academic research to help parents connect better with their children, as well as each other.
We spoke to Dympna (or as we like to call her, ‘The Dad Whisperer’) to better understand some ways men and women interact differently with their children, and the virtues of each approach.
Male rambunctiousness vs female safety consciousness
“I run baby yoga classes and it always strikes me how differently men and women do the same move,” Dympna says.
“For example, when I ask them to swing the child, the mums will do it slowly and gently while the dads will swing them much higher and faster.”
A similar dynamic plays out in Dympna’s baby massage classes.
“The mums massage in a tender way, which expresses connection and affection. The dads use a firmer touch, which expresses strength, protection and security.”
Chances are you’re the parent who hurls your baby up in the air and can’t wait to start staging dad vs kids wrestling matches. And chances are your partner freaks the hell out when you do.
Your significant other is not being irrational when she frets this stuff. She is simply playing her own role and trying to protect baby from injury.
However, you are playing a valid parenting role too. All that rough-housing has an important function and teaches kids self-mastery.
“There are stacks of studies showing how rough and tumble play helps children learn how to manage their emotions and socialise with others, as well as developing their problem-solving abilities,” says Dympna.
Male exploration vs female nesting
“Next time you’re looking at family happy snaps, check out how men and women hold babies differently,” Dympna suggests.
“Fathers, uncles and grandfathers will typically be holding the baby so that it’s looking out in the same direction they are. In contrast, mothers, aunts and grandmothers will be holding the baby facing them to make eye contact.”
As you can probably guess by this stage, both approaches are worthwhile.
“The male way conveys, ‘This is the world, you should take an interest in exploring it,” says Dympna.
“The female way conveys, “You’re safe in this closed circle of the family.”
Male discipline vs female nurturing
It may be the mum who is engaging in what’s traditionally regarded as a ‘masculine style’ of parenting. Alternatively, the dad may be parenting in what’s commonly seen as a mum-like manner.
This is nowhere more apparent when it comes to the strict vs indulgent parent dynamic.
If you think back to your childhood, you’ll probably recall there was one parent who was given to laying down the law. Up until recently, the father was expected to be the disciplinarian and the mother the nurturer.
Like all those parenting books you never got around to reading say, children need both love and discipline to thrive.
“It can be an issue if the pendulum swings too far in the direction of either soft, laid-back parenting or strict, fear-based parenting,” Dympna says. “But it is to be expected the parents will be at different points on the nurture-discipline spectrum. In most cases, that is fine.”
Bite your tongue and embrace parenting diversity
“It’s amazing how people will talk to their partners in a critical, shaming manner that they would never think of using with, say, a co-worker,” Dympna says.
“Both men and women would benefit if, when they did need to raise an issue around parenting, they did so in a nicer way.”
“Rather than declare, ‘You’re doing it the wrong way’, perhaps try, ‘Have you considered doing it this way?’ Or, ‘I’ve noticed the baby responds better when I do this.’
Dympna has specific counsel she offers to each parent in her ‘dads only’ and ‘mums only’ parenting workshops:
“The advice I give to mums is that their partner isn’t doing something wrong, they are just doing it differently. And that’s great for the baby; if nothing else it shows them there is more than one way of going about things. So, they will grow up being flexible and open to different experiences.”
Dympna makes the same point to dads but also urges them to consider their partner’s mindset.
“Lots of mums suffer from post-natal depression. Even those that don’t are going to feel overwhelmed and sleep deprived for a long time,” she says.
“That’s something to keep in mind before you make a remark they may perceive as critical of their parenting abilities. Or before you get too worked up about a comment they’ve made that seems to question your skills or commitment as a father.”
If you live in Sydney and are interested in participating in one of Dympna’s parenting workshops, click here to get in touch.