Moms Know Better Than Dads How Much Parenting Men Actually Do

February 06, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Dads say they're doing more parenting and they buy into the notion of doing so, but they're overstating their commitment. Just ask moms, who apparently have a better grasp on their husbands' perceived commitment and the reality of what they do, according to new research.

"We're doing all right, but men still have a long way to go," said Brent McBride, a University of Illinois family educator who studies men's roles as parents.

With increasing numbers of women working outside the home and media portrayals of children-oriented fathers, there has been a growing expectation that men should be more than financially oriented providers, McBride said. "It is no longer ethical for us as a society to expect women to do one shift outside the home and a second shift inside the home," he said.

For 10 years, McBride has conducted parenting programs just for men to help them "overcome the restraints and barriers to becoming more involved as parents." But his study in the fall issue of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly made it clear that in order to help dads, he needs moms, too.

The study -- by McBride, a professor of human development and director of the U. of I. Child Development Lab, and graduate student Thomas R. Rane -- measured the perceptions of psychological and emotional commitments to parenting roles made by fathers of 3- to 5-year-old children in 89 Midwest families and their actual performance. Moms also gave their views of dads' actions.

Beyond the standard time-use studies, McBride and Rane provided a detailed look at fathers' actual involvement. They considered dads' interaction with kids, their physical and psychological accessibility to the kids and how well they handled indirect responsibilities such as arranging baby sitters, making doctor's appointments and planning for school or the weather.

Both mothers and fathers were given 15 pennies and told to distribute them according to their perceived psychological investments of dads in five adult roles: worker, parent, spouse, social and other. Next the parents were tested with a parental responsibility scale codeveloped by McBride in 1993 to measure participation in 14 common child-care tasks.

When the data were combined and analyzed, the researchers concluded that dads' performances didn't stack up to their perceptions, but the mothers' read on the dads was on target.

The findings suggest that identity theory doesn't work for men in explaining what they do as parents, said McBride, noting that the dads' ranking of investments in each role didn't, as expected, say a lot about their parenting behaviors.

"We need to get fathers to be more realistic about their parenting roles, about what active involvement actually means. It's more than playing for 15 minutes after supper," he said. "This data tells us that we need to give mechanisms to men to be able to start communicating with their partners about the investments in the parenting role and how they can support each other better."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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