Dads Caring for Their Kids: It's Parenting, Not Babysitting

Fathers sometimes get undue praise for doing what mothers are expected to do.

dads diapers.jpg
Under the watchful eye of an American Red Cross nurse, these expectant fathers learn the "ins" and "outs" of the proper way to diaper a baby on November 21, 1947 in Brooklyn, New York. (Robert Wands/AP Images)

When Kevin Kruse is spotted out with his children, people often ask if he is babysitting. Despite the frequency of the inquiry, it still makes the Princeton history professor bristle.

"No, 'babysitting' is what you do with other people's kids," Kruse said. "These are my own kids, so it's called 'parenting.'"

What Kruse described illuminates the ways in which men and women are attempting to negotiate a space that lacks a precedent. The act of a man sharing parental responsibilities is highly desirable to women, but still relatively infrequent, and therefore elicits laudatory reactions.

Without the proper vocabulary to do so, however, people may just be inadvertently reinforcing gender norms.

"Like a flower blooming in winter, this behavior is noticed because it is not found," said Diane Kobrynowicz, a former tenured professor who is now a health coach. Before she left academia, Kobrynowicz conducted studies interpreted in the paper "Decoding Subjective Evaluations: How Stereotypes Provide Shifting Standards." Along with co-author Monica Biernat, a professor of psychology at the Univsersity of Kansas, Kobrynowicz expected that stereotypes operate somewhat consistently. For example, librarians are older women who fashion their hair into buns, wear glasses and exhibit a sour countenance. What they found, however, was that men and women, particularly in terms of parenting, were judged overall to be subjectively different.

Identical words can be used to describe a mother and a father, but those words do not retain a consistent definition: They are translated to reflect parenting stereotypes. A mother and a father might be depicted as "very involved," but most people have gendered expectations about what "very involved" means, and it has little do with time spent with children or responsibilities assumed for them. There were instances in which, despite engaging in the same behaviors, a mother who said "she could do more" and a father who said "he did a lot" were judged differently.

"I get undue adulation all of the time for simply being out with my kid," said Adam Mansbach, author of the bestselling book Go the F**k to Sleep. "Just because my kid isn't freezing to death, I'm a great father." During the height of the book's success, he was treated like an exemplary primary caretaker. In reality, he only experienced the frustratingly long bedtimes he wrote about 25 percent of the time. When he pointed this out, it was generally ignored.

"The 'goodness' or 'badness' of parenting wasn't judged on the actual objective behavioral evidence, but on how the behavior compared other judgment standards, and that judgment standard is different for men and women," said Kobrynowicz.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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