Dads: The antidote to helicopter parenting
Want to make sure your kid graduates from college? Money helps, as well as good grades — but so does having an involved father. In fact, we’re learning more about the importance of dads in all families, rich as well as poor.
An American Enterprise Institute report last month found, “Compared to teens who reported that their fathers were not involved, teens with involved fathers were 98 percent more likely to graduate from college, and teens with very involved fathers were 105 percent more likely to graduate from college.”
The author, Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, suggests several reasons this might be the case: Dads might help with homework, or make kids less likely to engage in mischief; they may help with tuition, too.
But here’s another possibility: Fathers seem to do a better job fostering independence in kids. And one of the biggest challenges of succeeding in higher education is the amount of freedom you’re given.
In the past year, I’ve interviewed a number of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who’d made it to college. Without exception, they report that the biggest difference from high school is the burden of studying on their own, managing their own time and prioritizing their own activities.
It’s not just low-income kids who benefit from the fatherly presence when it comes to college. The AEI report notes: “It seems particularly important for young adults from moderately and highly educated homes.”
The kind of homes, that is, where kids are no longer allowed to wander more than 5 feet from their backyards, where every activity requires a helmet and where parents attach GPS devices to backpacks.
Many feminists have been on a crusade to get fathers to behave more like mothers, yet it seems dads actually do some vital work by counterbalancing the helicopter parenting (read: helicopter mothering) that seems to dominate American middle-class homes these days.
A spate of recent books has described how, even as dads are spending many more hours with kids than they used to, they’re still parenting differently. In “All Joy and No Fun,” for instance, Jennifer Senior describes the typical experience of a middle-class couple, Angie and Clint.
Three-year-old Eli demands Angie’s constant attention. Even when she’s supposed to be cleaning up or getting ready to get out the door, she stops to negotiate, cajole or just entertain him. Clint, on the other hand, expects Eli to play with Legos while he makes dinner.
And whenever Eli’s younger brother Xavier cries, Mom picks him up. Clint wanted to sleep-train the baby, but Angie can’t bear his tears.
The kids seem safe and happy when they’re with their father. But in interviews with Senior, Angie and other moms all seem to do little but complain that the dads aren’t doing things the way mothers would.
Fathers seem to think that kids are ready for things that mothers don’t. For example, a study from the University of North Carolina a few years ago found that fathers speaking to children has a more significant effect on language development than mothers. Makes sense to me, since fathers are much less likely to use babytalk in communicating with children. (Why did I keep asking my 1-year-old if she wanted her ba-ba? Just because she couldn’t say “bottle” doesn’t mean she didn’t know exactly what it was.)
Dads are also more likely to let their children take risks. It’s not just that they’ll actually let go when teaching kids how to ride a two-wheeler (something that I instinctively did not want to do when my kids were learning). Fathers are also more likely to put their kids in the deep end of pools and to let them talk to strangers — doing more to prepare them for the real world.
As psychologist Daniel Paquette has observed, “Fathers tend to stand behind their children so the children face their social environment, whereas mothers tend to position themselves in front of their children, seeking to establish visual contact with the children.”
For years, we’ve known about the most basic effects of having a father’s presence in the home: Boys are less likely to commit crimes; girls are less likely to be taken advantage of by predatory men. But it turns out that dads may actually be doing a lot more: They’re actually preparing our kids for modern life.
By letting children engage in “unstructured play,” by helping them gain the “grit” that comes with taking risks and letting them succeed or fail on their own, by pushing them to be a little more independent, it seems as though fathers may be the key to helping our children become, well, grown-ups.