Parenting: The Y-Factor
The tides of opinon on whether or not boys really are inherently different from girls (and if so, is it nature or social conditioning) have ebbed and flowed for the better part of 50 years now. For the last 10 there has been a proliferation of books saying that boys are different, and in a world where education and health are dominated by females, boys miss out in those areas for that reason. As for the girls, feminist Sandra Coney explains girls’ huge lead in education by saying that their natural superior smartness is simply shining through now that barriers are removed.
Regardless of what causes the differences between boys and girls, trends are undeniable and dealing with them as a parent is quite real. The danger is that we fall into the trap of thinking “she does that because she’s a girl” or “that’s girl’s stuff, a guy can’t understand it”, when we look at our daughters. It can also be a cop-out – let’s concentrate on our sons; they’re the ones needing the role models, right?
Like boys, girls are quite dependent on a close relationship with their (natural) fathers. It has been shown that this relationship is the most important for girls’ development of a healthy sexual identity. Even more than for boys, father absence in the early years predicts bad outcomes: higher risks of teenage pregnancy, suicide, low self-esteem and low self-assessed happiness and quality of life.
Nevertheless as a society we are putting greater emphasis on the father-son than on the father-daughter relationship. Popular literature emphasises the point—as a culture we love the romantic notion of a boy following in his father’s footsteps, and there isn’t quite a similar image for fathers and daughters, or even mothers and daughters.
Men’s groups, a growing trend in New Zealand, unfortunately also focus solely on boys for their ‘men’s retreats’ and other events that foster the idea of male bonding, and introducing sons to other adult men. However, as for girls and fathers, a boy’s sexual identity is very strongly affected by his relationship with his mother. The vibes that we get through secure non-sexual relationships with the other sex are possibly more important for the formation of our sexual identity than the relationship we have with the parent of the same sex.
If the groundwork has been laid, father-daughter relationships often come into their own in the teenage years, and can become extremely productive partnerships. World tennis ace Steffi Graf is one example of a young woman whose career was ‘managed’ by her father, and there are many other examples in sport. At a time when a girl is trying to step out of the shadow of her mother, she might find it much less threatening to listen and talk to her father. Boys go through the same thing, and during the teenage years those same-sex relationships within the household can start to resemble war zones.
For young children, parenting experts tend to advocate a child-driven approach. Meaning: look what your child does, or wants to do, and follow along. It is a good way to find your child’s natural aptitudes and preferences, but the key to a child’s learning is the relationship with the person the child is learning from. Boys and girls find joy in doing something together with dad, regardless of what it is, and a ‘child-driven’ approach should not stop a parent from occasionally introducing their own activities that they like to do.
For all children it is important that they get some one-on-one time with either parent. Some studies have shown that men’s interaction with young children changes significantly once mum leaves the room. It may be a lack of confidence or worries that a more assertive parenting approach may somehow undermine the mother, but it seems that men talk more and are generally more responsive when they are around their children by themselves. This is invaluable time for a child to get to know their dad as the human being he is rather than the role he plays.
Most of us can remember stories from our own childhood where we basked in our father’s pride—or felt downcast by his disappointment. This, too, applies to boys and girls and depending on their personalities they develop different strategies to get the former and avoid the latter.
It is common for children to avoid competition altogether because they do not want to disappoint a parent (although they may never phrase it like that). It is hard to hide disappointment completely. Most of us try to cover it up with positive words (“great effort” – “how wonderful that you took part in it”), and that is important even if your body language disagrees.
If that is the case in your relationship with your child, it is possible that your child has to try too hard to get positive acknowledgement from you. Quality time is the answer to that: let them feel that you love them as they are in those special moments, so they can take your pride (and otherwise) in their achievements the right way.
It’s a classic weak point for fathers. From day one we like to brag. It is a rare father who does not tell me that his 6 months old baby is already ‘months ahead’ of the other babies he sees. We’re prone to try to put some of our own ambitions onto our children.
That’s not entirely bad, but it needs to be underpinned by a relationship that is genuinely loving towards the child as a person. Combine the two and father and child are an unbeatable team.