Why mums and dads make equally good parents
Attitudes are changing fast around the role of dads in the family. But we’re still stuck with a lot of outdated baggage that guilts mums into being left with all the childcare responsibility, and implies that dads ‘naturally’ don’t belong in the role of a lead parent.
Little Bear was happily riding his bike in the garden at nursery the other day when another kid, let’s call him Steve, started following him. Steve got closer and closer until he started playfully bumping into Little Bear’s bike and giggling. Should I intervene?
Maybe not, Little Bear is getting cross with Steve but no one’s getting hurt. In fact, Little Bear might even be learning some life skills about dealing with annoying people without parents swooping in. Maybe it’s an opportunity for him to learn how to talk to Steve and persuade him to- Wait! Little Bear’s buddy, Suzie, has just stepped in and pushed over Steve’s bike. Intervene? But how?
Suzie then takes Steve’s bike and rides off in victory shouting ‘My turn! My turn!’ Intervene? Hell no.
Two and a half thousand years ago, Socrates asked what Justice was. Ever since, adults have struggled with this question. What is fair, how should we live our lives, how should we treat other people? Not so for a toddler. Toddlers have an innate knowledge of justice. They’ve understood it with absolute certainty months before they can even say it. For them, the obvious nature of justice requires swift and outraged retribution for anyone who challenges its unbreakable rules.
When a toddler is well rested, then Justice is kinder, calmer and has more giggles. Justice can be reasoned with. On the other hand, the tired toddler has no charity. When their dispensing their Justice, no quarter should be given, and inconsistency is expected and utterly fair. Whether they want the Weetabix dry and wet at the same time, or want their trousers off whilst staying warm, no clemency should be given to the parent who can’t square these circles.
The other week I was at Story Time at the London Docklands Museum. The kids and toddlers all sat round enrapt by the enchanting puppet show… No. Some of the kids were listening, but toddlers being toddlers were also just doing their own thing. One toddler’s dad was sitting on the floor near his son, waving at his little guy. The toddler stood up, bumped into a bigger kid and fell over. The tears started coming, and the dad leant forward and slowly began to pick him up to soothe him.
Then, as if from nowhere, a woman knocks parent and kid alike to one side to swoop in and pull the child from his father’s arms. Is this a kidnapping!? No, it’s the kid’s mum. She shoos away the dad and takes her son to one side to comfort him, whilst the dad stands there, awkwardly, not sure what to do with his now empty hands.
The scenario and the feelings involved are familiar to most active parents. Some parents are hit by the weight of responsibility, and a need to surge into action at any cost to help their kid. Others will have the same need, but are stopped dead in their tracks by the sense that they’ve just had rank pulled on them by their boss.
Your toddler is always one-step ahead. Every problem that pops up, sleeping, moving, eating (or not eating), you’ll finally get to grips with it just as they move onto the next thing that knocks you for six. Like a bug that keeps on mutating each time your immune system gets use to it.
But this step forward’s different. Finally Little Bear’s moving onto familiar ground. He’s honing his ‘People Influencing’ skills, and starting to negotiate. The toddler’s outmanoeuvring of our ability to parent is no longer an unconscious leap of his developing body, it’s now moving into conscious thinking of how he can outsmart his carers. Working in negotiation for the last 10 years, this latest shift is making me proud (especially when he outsmarts me). He’s gone all these little ‘needs’ inside him, and now he can start thinking about smarter ways of getting them.
The toddler's vocab gets bigger by the day. But however many new ‘words’ they pick up, half the ones they use are always the old favourite: No. There're are plenty of toddlers managing just fine with this one word.
In a short space of time Little Bear's really mastered the ‘no’. All in all he’s got 5 different no’s he uses during the week.
1. The sweet and patronising ‘no’
He tilts his head at us and gently frowns. It’s often accompanied by the wagging of a finger. This comes when we’ve broken a toddler rule: such as suggesting that he shouldn’t switch the washing machine off mid-cycle; that he might like to eat the food in front of him instead of painting the walls with it; or that he needs to take a nap whilst in the middle of playing with the fire-engine.
Little Bear was running around the playground yesterday chasing after his friend (Super-baby), when a younger little munchkin fell over and hurt her knee. The parent swooped up their little girl as the tears started rolling. Little Bear became transfixed by the hurting baby, ignoring all else around him and looking like he had a serious case of constipation. His little awkward anxious grin stared at the baby until she calmed down. A few awkward steps towards the baby: “Is it ok Pappa?” “Yes, Little Bear, the baby was sad but she’s had a cuddle and is ok now”. He then runs off to throw himself recklessly down the nearest slide.
Ever get the feeling your kid sees you as a liability? It makes sense for teenagers. It’s what everyone expects from them. They’re suddenly more self-conscious than they’ve ever been in their little lives and feel the need to doggedly guard their new found reputations with their mates. They start getting their own tastes in music, films and dress-sense, and see these things as a way to tell the world who they are.
What you don’t expect as a first time parent of a smaller person is that there’s a similar leap for the little people between 1 and 2. Here are some things I’ve spotted that hail that new stage in a little troll’s navigation into social awkwardness and need to prop up their new found reputation.
Only parents understand their toddler's babbling
*Tap tap* *tap tap*. Someone’s patting my forehead. As my eyes open with a little morning light sneaking through the blinds into the bedroom, Little Bear is informing me that it’s time to get up. ‘God morgon Lila Björn!’ I can faintly make out his smile as he crawls over to grab hold of me in a heart-warming hug saying what sounds like ‘Pappa! Pappa!’. Raise my arm to hug him back and he does a skilful role under my arm, over my belly and sits up next to me pointing at the lamp: ‘lappa! lappa!’ (‘Lampa’ in Swedish). So me and the lamp have the same name… I’m not jealous of the fact that he clearly has more interest in switching on a lamp than hugging his daddy, but it’d be nice to not have to share my name with a bedside reading aid.
We were on holiday with family in Sweden last week, and Little Bear formed his first two-word sentence. Well, more of an instruction than a sentence: ‘go car!’,(‘gå bil!’ in Swedish) pointing in the direction of the Volvo in the driveway to the summer house. It’s clearly far from his first successful attempt at verbal communication. But it’s a big step in his learning to articulate his ridiculous desires and inconvenient opinions. What’s his third word in that sentence going to be when he can manage it? We’d like it to be please, but realistically it’s going to be ‘now’.
Nursery is a bit of a blind spot for parents. We spend every day following these tiny people around, monitoring their every nap, meal and nappy change, and getting enrolled into each tower building session and every repeat of the Hungry Caterpillar. Then, suddenly, we delegate this all to someone else. It’s like going into heart surgery. You’re suddenly trusting someone else to look after something that’s really quite important to you, and you’re not able to watch what’s going on when you’re doing it. I want to know what’s going on during this blind-spot.
You’ll have to excuse the optimism, but there’s no time of year and day quite like a spring morning. An early start, the air is crisp and sweet, the sky is blue, the shadows long.
Living in London, a faint glimmer of sunshine means our local playground is packed during the day: queues to the swings, chaos on the slides, carnage on the roundabouts and a highly stressed guy at the ice-cream stand trying to keep up with the constant flow of grumpy, happy or hyperactive children. Trying to get Little Bear on a swing can involve a five minutes wait, which doesn’t make sense in a toddler’s world-view so involves 5 minutes of stopping him from throwing himself at the other children on the swings. A trip up the ladder to the slide is equally tough, with inevitable disaster when he tries to climb back up the slide when he gets to the bottom. ‘No baby! No! ‘t ‘genst rules baby! Stop!’ shouts the 3-year-old who can’t understand why Little Bear doesn’t know the ways of the playground yet. Then,like soft-play only with concrete floors, comes the inevitable head kicks from older kids and the toddler tumbles.
Why do dads need to justify being the responsible parent?
Settling Little Bear into nursery I was asked to fill in the emergency contact details in case they needed to get hold of us during the day. Naturally, I put mine down first. My first instinct (as for many blokes) is to try to explain why I put my name first rather than his mum’s, and I have to explain it in terms of why my wife couldn’t be the first point of call. I want to explain that: ‘my wife is really busy during the week’ or ‘my work is closer than my wife’s to the nursery’ or ‘she’s often abroad so it’s easier to get hold of me’. I struggled to stop myself giving these justifications to the nursery staff for me accepting a pretty basic parental responsibility. I was of course treated to a ‘are you sure you want to put your name there?’ from the nursery staff ‘you realise it means we’ll contact you first, before mummy?’ [yes, this is what ‘first point of contact’ normally means]
When I say softer parent, I’m not thinking about round the waist. At the moment I’m leading that one. The question is: out of mum and dad, who is more willing to break when the baby’s siren starts up?
The stereotype is that mums give the cuddles, and dads dish out the discipline. Alternatively, dads leave all the strict stuff and coddling to the mums, and occasionally peer over their newspapers to tickle the little ones. I’m guessing that in most modern families, the picture is no longer so clear.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots