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Making room for Daddy

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The State Journal-Register
Sunday, May 06, 2001
Making room for Daddy
Society often puts mothers at center stage in parenting - and that can be
detrimental to fathers and children alike.
By KATHRYN REM
STAFF WRITER
It happens every day.
A father has trouble getting away from work to care for his child. A
schoolteacher or pediatrician talks to a child's mother instead of his
father. Fathers are portrayed on television by the likes of mobster Tony
Soprano or goofball Homer Simpson.
These minor incidents can lead to feelings of neglect, disregard and
dimunition in men, according to Kyle Pruett, a Yale University psychiatrist
who says that, despite nationwide grumbling about absentee dads, society
doesn't do a good job of encouraging or praising fathers.
It's time to make room for Daddy.
"Every minute is important. They grow up only once," says Ron Hageman of
Springfield about his children, Hollie, 15; Katie, 17; and Seth, 26.
Hageman, a Horace Mann sales representative, is a volunteer coach on his
daughters' softball team and travels to about 100 games a year.
He and his wife, Clara, a homemaker, have both been active in the lives of
their children.
"When they were little, we went camping, fishing, on family vacations. We
read to them and threw a spongy football around in the back yard," says
Hageman, 54. "Now we're seeing the benefits of those things. They have goals
of going to college. They like sports. They've benefited, and I've
benefited - big time."
Not all fathers, of course, are as involved as Hageman.
The role of the father in American society has shifted profoundly, says
Pruett, who recently spoke at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield at a
conference about fatherhood sponsored by Voices for Illinois Children and
other child advocacy groups.
"Before the Industrial Revolution, American children were very close to
their fathers. They worked in the fields together, they went to market
together and fathers knew what their children ate for lunch and what they
said in their prayers Sunday morning," says Pruett.
"One reason that men and their children feel quite distant is because they
don't work together anymore. Most children have a very superficial
understanding of what their fathers do."
Another reason, he says, is that some mothers - often without knowing it -
refuse to relinquish control.
"Mothers encourage fathers to get involved and to spend time with the baby,
but then 90 percent of mothers tell him how to do it. They give
instructions. They turn him into an employee," says Pruett.
They may, for example, tell dad exactly how to feed, dress and handle the
child, rather than letting him find his own style and build his own sense of
confidence.
"He needs to find those things out for himself. Women need to guard against
gatekeeping," says Pruett, author of "Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as
Essential as Mother Care for Your Child" (Broadway Books) and former host of
the Lifetime television series "Your Child 6-12 with Dr. Kyle Pruett."
Mary Beth Ray, a Springfield family therapist and parenting expert, agrees.
"We tend to look over our shoulder and say, 'You don't have a burp rag under
the baby's chin' or 'Is the bottle warm enough?' We're so protective and so
tuned in to our children that we hover and direct.
"I've had women say they've gone out for the night and got home at 9:30 and
Joey was still up, eating Chee-tos and watching TV. But that's the best
thing you can do. How great to be out of that rut."
Ray, the mother of three, adds that women need to remind themselves that
"it's not 80 percent mom and 20 percent dad. All parents are equal."
When Scott Brandt of Sherman is with his children, 10-year-old Lauren and
8-year-old Elliott, he reads to them ("Harry Potter" is Lauren's favorite),
builds with Lego blocks and takes them on errands. But he also plays
football with them, kicks a soccer ball around the basement and - when they
were younger - made them laugh with "tickle fighting."
The experts say children benefit from the more active play that fathers
often provide.
"Mothers don't tend to have as much fun, to romp and be silly," says Ray.
"Mom is the rock, the caregiver. When she's at home, she tends to be cooking
dinner or doing laundry.
"Dad adds the other side of being more spontaneous. When he plays, he's not
looking at the sticky countertop and thinking that it has to be cleaned off.
He adds a different personality. There's no right way to play, although
mothers tend to think their way is right."
Pruett adds that dads "typically let the kids touch bugs and see things up
close. It helps them develop an appetite for stimulation."
Fathers sometimes are made to feel unwelcome - often in subtle ways - in
schools, day care centers, doctor's offices and other institutions.
"When the magazines in the pediatrician's office are not geared toward men,
that sends a very clear message. When the raffle prizes at school are
embroidery sets, men see schools as a domain for women. When the day care
center leaves fathers out of intake, questionnaires and opening nights, men
just don't feel welcome," says Pruett.
He adds that employers and co-workers sometimes give a man a difficult time
about taking time off for family responsibilities.
"I caused a stir in my office when Lauren was born and I asked for an unpaid
three-month leave of absence," says Brandt, 38, an actuary with the Illinois
Department of Insurance.
He had no problem getting the leave, but co-workers seemed surprised that
he made the request.
Another issue plaguing dads is unfair stereotypes. Movies and TV shows
portray fathers as buffoons or macho men, either hapless and incompetent
or mean and unemotional.
Divorced dads face an additional set of problems: gaining custody and
adequate visitation rights.
"Judges have a 1950s vision of the family," says Dianna Thompson of the
American Coalition for Fathers & Children, a California-based fathers-rights
advocacy group.
"Men are taking huge involvement in their children and the courts don't seem
to notice." Her group is pushing for shared parenting in divorce cases, with
the parents working out the arrangements.
"For many years, men didn't fight for their rights," says Thompson, a
custodial parent and second wife. "Now they are taking the time to do it.
But social change takes a long time."
Years of research have documented the benefits to children of active
fathering. According to Pruett, such children grow up to have lower divorce
and arrest rates, to be less violent and to have greater problem-solving
competence, empathy, moral sensitivity and income.
"The biggest determinant of a child's happiness," says Ray, "is the amount
of love and physical affection they receive. There is a hug that dad gives
that is very different from a mother's hug. It's safe and protective and we
all need that."
Brandt, who is now divorced and has joint custody with his ex-wife, says
that his children "will know that someone always loves them. Someone will
always be there to support them and if they ever need anything, their
parents will be there, no matter what."
Fathers, says Pruett, "are the single greatest untapped resource in the
lives of children."
But children aren't the only ones who benefit from close interaction with
their fathers. Fathers do, too.
Mike Stehn, 34, a computer support technician for the Illinois Department of
Nuclear Safety, is the father of Elizabeth, 21/2, and Sarah, 11 months. He
and his wife, Vicki, share parenting duties equally.
"I get satisfaction just being around them. I do Saturday errands with
Elizabeth. Sometimes we'll watch TV together. We go to the park. She helps
me clean up the sandbox. Sarah loves to take my hat off and put it on her
head. They're just a lot of company," says Stehn.
"Fathers can't fall in love with a child without it affecting their other
relationships," says Pruett, explaining why fathering deepens all
relationships for a man.
In addition, he says, active dads tend to change jobs less often, have more
successful marriages, be healthier and live longer than absentee dads. And
they are more satisfied with their lives.
"They're giving me quality time," says Hageman about his children, "and they
don't even know it."
Kathryn Rem can be reached at 788-1520 or kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.
SJ-R Home:  http://www.sj-r.com/
 Copyright 2001, The State Journal-Register

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