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

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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.

If the phenomenon Kruse experiences can be understood through the theory of shifting standards, his parenting is considered extraordinary because it is performed by a man. If his behavior were judged against what society expects from mothers, it becomes far less remarkable, if not entirely invisible. While politicians publicly applaud the "most important job in the world" during elections, a working mother tending to restless children while attempting to shop for groceries at the same time is unlikely to garner a second glance.

"Micro expectations add up over time," said Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. "There's a convincing body of research that shows people can perpetuate discriminatory effects without intending to."

That is not to say that men who share parental responsibilities should be ignored, or that this behavior necessarily precludes praise, but how to do so is an issue that needs greater attention and discussion. The way people react to these situations could be beneficial to greater goals of gender equity, but also hold the potential to thwart those very efforts.

"We socialize each other into practice," said Kendall King, a linguist and professor of second languages and cultures at the University of Minnesota.

Consider the way adults speak to little girls. In the past decade, sociological research has made it increasingly common for parents to actively avoid calling their daughters "pretty," and to object to other traditional gender-specific praise, such as, "Aren't you a little doll!" These are seemingly positive words, but they can also serve as self-fulfilling prophecies. If little girls receive such praise, and they see their brothers being told they are "smart" or "strong," they will assume they should live up to that societal expectation.

"This becomes the norm when we socially and linguistically normalize it," King said.

As it stands, however, academia has yet to offer a framework to normalize the practice of recognizing men who share parental responsibities. King, Kobrynowicz, and Jakobsen all understood Kruse's experiencesand offered similiar anecdotes, but the linguist, psychologist-turned-health coach, and women's studies professor did not know of any research that extends past citing the problem.

What is most needed is a way to comment on men's involvement in their children's lives that is not judgmental or evaluative, but still positive. Until we devise such language, it is good to remember that gender bias is multifaceted, operating on an institution and interpersonal level. In lieu of further research, Kobrynowicz suggests a more hands-on approach: "Go up to those fathers and ask them about their situation, what is helpful to hear and what isn't."

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

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