Like many fathers, I’m the fun parent, not the comfort parent. When my three-year-old wants to play outside, he calls my name. I’m his first choice for games and activities, and I’m proud of it. But when he scrapes his knee, or gets scared, or wakes up in the middle of the night, he wants Mommy.
If my son needs comfort, his father is his second choice.
This is a pretty typical experience, and it probably comes down to gender norms. Generally speaking, fathers are more invested in preventing harm in the first place than comforting children in the aftermath, researchers have found. And kids, as they age, become less comfortable showing weakness around, and opening up to, their fathers. Meanwhile, their relationships with their mothers grow stronger. It’s a pervasive societal expression of traditional gender roles, sure. But not the sort of thing an involved dad couldn’t fix, with some effort.
Here’s what we know about the science of paternal comfort.
Infants: Fathers Focus On Prevention, Not Comfort
When it comes to night wakings, mothers and fathers tend to have different routines. One 2014 study of couples caring for their firstborn children examined this phenomenon in detail. Researchers found that mothers woke up to care for crying infants an average of three times per night, while fathers were up closer to twice per night. And while mothers usually assuaged babies with food, soothing lullabies, and rocking, fathers who woke up in response to a crying child spent only about 40 percent of their time awake tending to the baby. Most of the time was spent engaging in “self-care” or “passive awakening”. They got around to the baby eventually.
But that’s somewhat typical of the average American household. Even nowadays, new mothers are usually more focused upon childcare than new fathers. The most telling results of the study came when researchers examined why mothers and fathers woke up in the first place. Mothers invariably woke to feed a crying infant. Fathers, on the other hand, were significantly more likely than mothers to wake up simply to check on a sleeping baby and an exhausted new mom.
“Woke up three times last night,” one father told the study authors. “Twice to check on wife and baby and one time to use the restroom.”
In other words, when mothers comfort infants, their primary concern is current distress. Fathers may be more concerned with preventing future distress. “Mothers delivered the majority of nocturnal infant caregiving…however, mothers’ role in feeding may play a large part in their accessibility to deliver, or engagement in, other nocturnal caregiving tasks,” the authors write. “A fathers’ nocturnal caregiving need could be to assure household safety and optimal family care.”
Toddlers: Cry To Mom, Stay Strong In Front Of Dad
This theme continues as children grow older, as evidenced by the results of a 2017 study on how mothers and fathers deal with toddlers’ pain. Although men and women show no significant difference in how they verbally and nonverbally attempt to comfort their toddlers, researchers found, children respond differently to each parent.
Specifically, “children of mothers who engaged in more physical comfort/reassurance reported higher levels of pain intensity,” the authors write. In general, researchers found that children reported higher pain tolerance and less pain overall when fathers were doing the comforting.
This does not mean that mothers are ineffective comforters—to the contrary. It is likely that, when children seek comfort with their mothers, they are more comfortable exaggerating their pain responses (or simply expressing how they feel). Toddlers go to their mothers to cry openly and be comforted. When fathers are around, on the other hand, children act tough.
Teenagers: How Fathers Impact Teenage Self-Perception (Or Not)
Perhaps most telling of all is a 2004 study that examined how teenagers perceived their relationships with each parent, and how it influenced their levels of social competence, sympathy, and self-worth. Teens who felt supported by their mothers were far more likely to score well on each of these measures. Not so with fathers. “In contrast,” the authors note. “Support and control from fathers was generally unrelated to adolescent adjustment.”
The authors speculate that this may be due to the fact that mothers typically spend more time with adolescents than fathers, and studies have shown that teens report higher levels of intimacy and disclosure with mothers than with fathers—and not just because they see fathers as strict or less accepting. In fact, teens reported that their mothers were more strict than their fathers. “This open discourse and intimacy between mothers and adolescents may be especially important in fostering social competence and self-worth,” they write.
“Mothers were rated significantly higher than were fathers on acceptance, involvement, cognitive understanding, and strict control, suggesting that the adolescents saw mothers as being more involved, more understanding, and also more likely to implement strict control.”
How To Become The Comforting Parent
True, fathers in traditional paternal roles do not seem to be the strongest force for comforting within the family. They’re more concerned with protecting and preventing harm when their kids are infants. In toddlerhood, they are more caught up in telling their kids to put on brave faces. And during their child’s teenage years fathers become emotionally distant. But nothing in the literature suggests that these trends are tied to gender. Men can wake up with crying babies; they can tell their kids that it’s ok to cry when they’re in pain and can make an effort to be intensely involved in their teen’s lives.
My son doesn’t run to me when he scrapes his knee. But maybe that’s because I play the traditional role of the protector rather than the comforter. Maybe it’s because my wife spends more time talking to him, engaging with him, than I do. Luckily, that’s not something written into our being, it’s something I (and other fathers) can change.