When the Fun Parent Steals the Show
Of the myriad parenting styles, some couples agree on one; others go down such different paths that the other person makes you want to bat them over the head.
My husband and I belong in the latter group. He is a toddler whisperer; his ability to calm my son is unrivalled — so much so that sometimes I feel left out. At home, when my son has refused morsels from everyone else, he will accept being fed by his father. He also probably has the most fun with his dad.
His dad has an undeniable skill, it’s true. The quality of engagement my husband, and many fathers of our acquaintance, bring to their relationships with their children is different from what I and my mom friends do. Sometimes, I wonder if this has to do with the kind of mothers we have chosen to be. We worry about clothing our kids, getting them vaccines on time, cleaning up after them and, amid all of this, we sometimes forget our toddlers need a friend.
My husband, however, plays this role brilliantly. He is happy to crawl under tables with my son, to play ball with him at 2 am, to sing funny songs to him and potter all over the house with him. In some ways, my husband is less scared about the consequences of exploration than I am. While I would ban access to plug-points, wires or anything else that had the remotest ability to injure, my husband lets our son poke, prod and dig under his watchful eye.
In watching them play so freely together, I’ve developed a new appreciation for this kind of play myself. A whole bunch of interesting evidence suggests a freewheeling parenting approach can teach children many wonderful things. Take, for example, roughhousing or horseplay or wrestling: Research shows this kind of activity “makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful” – a wonderful outcome that I (as the cautious variety of mother) cannot as effectively foster as my husband. Of course, there are other ways children can develop these attributes, but roughhousing is a toddler’s sport, and it communicates a parent’s love in a way a team sport later wouldn’t.
The other wonderful thing my husband does is teach my son to manage his response to pain. I deal badly with pain; despite my many efforts to check myself, I always find myself rushing to pick up my son at the slightest scrape, to soothe and pet and calm him. My husband, however, instead of immediately fussing over a scrape, distracts my son with a joke or a song. I’m continually impressed with his ability to do this and am convinced that it will contribute to my son’s ability to deal with stressful situations as he grows older.
It took me a while to recognise my husband’s approach to parenting as different, not wrong. And it took me even longer to understand and appreciate it. I realise, now, that while I don’t always like the roughhousing, excitement, nonchalance and unpredictability my husband brings, the truth is, it is actually creating a better learning environment for my son. There is some science to this; apparently neuroscientists have found that bouts of freewheeling rough play increase the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical in the brain that drives the growth of neurons. This could be particularly important for boys (only because there’s no equivalent research on girls): The longest longitudinal study of men ever undertaken suggests that fathers of the roughhousing kind foster an enhanced capacity to play, greater enjoyment of vacations, higher likelihood of using humour as a healthy coping mechanism, less anxiety, fewer physical and mental symptoms of stress in young adulthood, and even better adjustment to and contentment with life after retirement.
My own anecdotal evidence supports this. I have seen how my 2-year-old has become a happier and more resilient toddler, who plays, explores and talks to strangers with confidence. He’s become less clingy and certainly braver in the dark or in new and unexpected situations. This is thanks to my husband.
Some of the most powerful memories of my own childhood have to do with my father, who taught me strength of will during our long walks together. Sometimes I wonder if my mother ever felt left out then, as I do sometimes, now. But then I think – so what? My husband completes my son’s world as well as our family. So I’ll just keep worrying alone while they roam together. Both things, both of us, are important.