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Dad as nurturer

Report -- Canada's Independent Newsmagazine 11 June 2001

Dad as nurturer A psychologist says children do better with single fathers than single mothers

By Candis McLean

A war against fathers has been raging over the past several decades, with mothers and children among the losers, according to California-based psychologist Warren Farrell. During that time, the percentage of single dads doubled, the pendulum swung from the era of Father Knows Best to the era of Daddy Molests, from dad as family head to deadbeat dad. So contends Mr. Farrell in his new book, Father and Child Reunion: How to Bring the Dads We Need to the Children We Love. However, he believes, the pendulum is about to swing back. As an indication, he points to a Harris poll which last year asked people in their twenties if they would give up money for more time with the children: an unprecedented 70% of the men said yes, as compared to 63% of the women. "Just as the last third of the twentieth century was about creating equal opportunity for women as workers, so the first third of the twenty-first will be about creating equal opportunity for men as parents. Neither goal will be achieved until both goals are achieved," he states.

More controversially, Mr. Farrell ranks family structures, according to how they serve the child's best interest, as:

1. the intact family; 2. shared parent-time; 3. primarily father time; and 4. primarily mother time.

According to his research, both boys and girls living with single dads do better in all academic areas, particularly math and science, health-wise with fewer days absent from school and less likelihood of being hospitalized, and socially, through an increased likelihood of developing empathy. Empathy, he says, is created by the male style of discipline, which focuses the child less on getting its way and more on the reward to be obtained by paying attention to others' needs. Most children also pay more attention to fathers than mothers - "which frustrates mothers no end" - he claims, because in their discipline, dads:

* restrict less often; * give more input before restricting; * are more likely to set up consequences, and * are more likely to stick to them.

The failure to establish effective boundaries also explains, Mr. Farrell believes, the fact that single-mother households account for 43% of all abused children, and single moms are 24 times as likely to kill children as single dads. "When boundaries are not set well, and the children nag the mom into a state of frustrated exhaustion and powerlessness, mom is more likely to 'lose it' and hit the child. Domestic violence is a momentary act of power designed to compensate for an experience of powerlessness. These moms are having an experience of powerlessness."

Beyond discipline, the overall reason children do better with single fathers than single mothers, the psychologist contends, is not because men are better at fathering than women are at mothering, but rather because of the type of men who seek and get primary custody: those with higher incomes than their ex-wives, better education and more motivation to overcome the psychological, social and legal barriers to men gaining sole custody. Ironically, the fourth reason children do better with single dads is because they are more likely to have their moms involved than children with single moms are to have dads involved. In other words, they come closer to having two parents.

The ultimate answer to the problem of divorce, the author concludes after writing four books on the battle of the sexes, is "the need to get pre-school children and their parents involved in learning ways to give and receive personal criticism in a way that allows them to communicate about everything. Nothing really positive comes unless we get that." The most powerful step in receiving criticism, he says, is to "imagine the criticizer on a movie screen. The temporary emotional dissociation allows you to listen, rather than distort what the criticizer says, find flaws in it, or side-step and counter-attack, all of which result in 100% dissociation, and require the criticizer to up the ante - raise their voice and distort in order to make their point, or back off and shut up."

The intact family is best for children because of the different contributions of moms and dads. "For example, mom is more likely to say, 'Don't climb the tree, you could hurt yourself,' and dad, 'Oh let her climb the tree, it's important for her to learn how to take risks.' In the intact family a compromise can allow the child to climb the tree with dad standing under it to cushion a fall. The child receives both protection and risk-taking. However, when the mom and dad don't value their differences, they create tension that destabilizes the family."

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