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Fathers and mothers as play partners

Photo: Valentina Powers. Creative Commons.

Fathers’ hallmark style of interaction with toddlers is physical play with a high degree of arousal, excitement and unpredictability.

As more mothers enter the workforce, fathers and mothers are becoming more alike in many ways and are increasingly sharing in the care of feeding of their infants. However fathers still do less caregiving than mothers and instead they spend a greater percentage of the time available for interaction with their infants in play activities than mothers do. In North American, European and Australian families, fathers spend a greater percentage of their time with their infants in play than mothers. And when they do play, mothers and fathers each bring their distinctive style to this task.

In young infants, older infants and toddlers, fathers’ hallmark style of interaction with infants and toddlers is physical play with characteristic degrees of arousal, excitement and unpredictability in terms of the pace of the interaction. Fathers are more likely to lift or toss their infants in the air and tickle and poke them than mothers.

In contrast, mothers’ playful style is characterized by a more modulated and less exciting tempo. Moreover, mothers play more conventional games such as peek a boo, and they are more likely to introduce toys as part of their play routines. Mothers tend to present a toy and make it salient for the baby by moving and shaking it, unlike dads who tend to use toys in unconventional ways to poke or physically stimulate the infant. Another difference is that mothers are more verbal while interacting with their infants while fathers are less chatty and more action oriented. Finally, mothers are more didactic and act more like teachers by labeling the colors and shapes of toys and other common parts of the baby’s world during play routines.

As babies move into toddlerhood and the preschool years these play differences persist, with fathers continuing their physical play style while mothers continue to be more verbal in their playful encounters. However, as children develop some variations can be noted. Fathers may add teasing during physical play with young children as well, while mothers engage in more pretend play and role play than fathers. And the gender of the infant matters too. Fathers engage in more physical play with sons than daughters while mothers facilitate pretend play of their daughters more than of their sons.

Why do mothers and fathers play differently? Nature or nurture?

Both biological and environment factors probably play a role. Experience with infants, the amount of time spent with infants, the usual kinds of responsibilities that a parent assumes – all of these factors influence the parents’ style of play. The fact that fathers spend less time with infants and children than mothers may contribute as well. Fathers may use their distinctive arousing style as a way to increase their salience in spite of more limited time.

Biological factors cannot be ignored in light of the fact that male monkeys show the same rough and tumble physical style of play as human fathers and tend to respond more positively to bids for rough and tumble play than females. Moreover, human boys are more likely to engage in risk taking and sensation-seeking than girls and tend to behave more boisterously and show more positive emotional expression and reactions than females. Together these threads of the puzzle suggest that predisposing biological differences between males and females may play a role in the play patterns of mothers and fathers.

How play helps children to develop

Do these variations in styles of mother-father play matter for infant and child development. Briefly, father physical play may teach the infant and child how to better manage emotional arousal. Possibly, children who interact with a physically playful father and at the same time have an opportunity to regulate the pace and tempo of the interaction, learn how to recognize and send emotional signals during social interactions. In turn, children who send clear emotional signals to a partner and recognize other people’s emotions, are more socially competent with their peers.

Other aspects of children’s development that may be influenced by fathers play style include risk taking, the capacity to manage unfamiliar situations and the skill to manage competition.

Maternal play has important developmental outcomes too. Mothers’ verbal style of interaction may enhance children’s intellectual development including memory, problem-solving and language advancement. Perhaps they also influence children’s knowledge of internal emotional states, a consequence of maternal labeling of emotions and feelings during playful interactions.

Although father involvement in infancy and childhood is quantitatively less than mother involvement, both mothers and fathers nevertheless do have an important impact on their offspring’s development.

But play patterns vary between cultures and can change over time

Some final caveats–It is important to note that these mother-father differences in play are not found in all cultures and that other societies may use different routes to teach children important lessons about emotional regulation and language. For example, Chinese Malaysian, Indian and Aka pygmy (Central Africa) mothers and fathers rarely engage in physical play with their children. Instead, both display affection and engage in plenty of close physical contact. Moreover, in some societies peers and siblings or other family members such as aunts and uncles may be more prominent play partners than parents. Finally, in our own western cultures as mother and father roles become more similar we may find that in the future some of these gender of parent differences may be less pronounced.