The portrait of the American family has undergone a revolution. In its metamorphosis, we have seen a shift from Mom as the hub in the wheel of family life to Dad braiding hair, taking the baby to the pediatrician, and cheering along the sidelines at a 4 pm soccer game. Still, regardless of their sex, parents today are increasingly involved in their children’s lives to the point of being referenced as “hothouse parents” – those who engineer their children’s time and program their activities to achieve a pre-determined result.
One father recently told me, with pride: “They’ll eat what you feed them.” True. However, we need to provide nourishment, not condiment. My question: can’t we put on their plates the stuff of childhood?
The issue is confounded by the recent appearance on the scene of the 21st Century Dad! Just as the 1970s classic “William’s Doll” by Charlotte Zolotow breaks the stereotype of a boy who wants to own a doll of his own, today’s father fractures the mold of the dad whose primary role is to earn a living for the family.
Not a judgment. William’s grandmother explains why William needs a doll; she tells his father that he wants it so he’ll know how to care for his own baby “and bring him the things he desires, like a doll, so he can practice being a father.”
A recent Gallup Poll found that almost 60 percent of men derive a greater sense of satisfaction from caring for their family than they do from a job well done at work. It is a given that more and more men are appreciating a milieu that goes beyond work and public success, the previous marker that defined their life purpose. Advocate Jeff Gillenkirk characterizes it as the world of toothless smiles and gravity-defying first steps, clingy hugs, a new color mixed, a shoelace tied, a pretty dress, or a pair of pants put on right….” – a new measure of manhood.
But guys, be careful! I have been seeing the tendency toward overcompensation for this newly identified addition to Dad’s portfolio. Raising kids is not a business requiring constant oversight! It is an art to sow the seeds that stimulate new growth; you can over-water any garden regardless of its budding blossoms. Here’s some anecdotal evidence I have recently observed of well-intentioned fathers drowning their prized proverbial blooms:
A dad who railed that his 5-year-old daughter was plagued by separation anxiety when HE couldn’t let go of her hand; a father who refused to consider the possibility that his son had overcome a bout of homesickness while he still suffered from kid-sickness; a dad who empowered his 2-year-old to run amok in someone else’s home because he was loath to use the word “no” with his child.
There is good news, though: according to a 2008 British study, children with outstanding father involvement had significantly higher IQs at age 11 than those with low father participation; by age 42, children with high father connection had shown substantially more upward mobility than those with low father contribution; and fathers who engaged with their children had a positive effect upon them.
The prospective benefit on this phenomenon is clear: the emerging model of fatherhood that celebrates the first step, the first solid food, and the first soccer goal highlights a fraternity of dads who can make a difference in the lives of their children – despite the fact that only seven percent of eligible fathers take paternity leave!
I’m all for equality in parenting and job-sharing, especially diaper-changing and making school lunches! In fact, research supports the need for boys who are being raised in our patriarchal society to develop their emotional edge, their softer side. Let’s just be sure that in this manufactured greenhouse of parenting we don’t produce a dependence on artificial nourishment that brings about failure to thrive. If one hothouse parent can stifle growth by blocking the natural sunlight, can you imagine what two can cultivate by not allowing their offspring to mature on their own and to find their own solid roots?