Why Moms and Dads Matter–New Research

“In the last four decades, a feminist revolution has swept the globe,” observes W. Bradford Wilcox. Indeed, a rising tide of feminist concerns has reached almost every part of the world, with ideological feminism exerting its greatest influence in Western Europe and North America. The feminist revolution Wilcox describes has brought, he acknowledges, “many beneficial changes to our world.” Nevertheless, the same movement has “brought less welcome developments to the global scene,” and one of the most unwelcome of these developments is what Wilcox describes as “the androgynous impulse.”

W. Bradford Wilcox serves as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, and is the author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. In the November 2005 issue of Touchstone magazine, Wilcox confronts the “androgynous impulse” in his article, “Reconcilable Differences: What Social Sciences Show About the Complementarity of the Sexes and Parenting.”

In one sense, androgyny–the blending of the sexes and the denial of gender differences–has been part of ideological feminism from the beginning. The androgynous have denied basic gender differences by suggesting that distinct roles for men and women, along with distinctive gifts and abilities, are a product of oppressive social conditioning. The suggestion that men and women differ in any basic respect–other than the biological–has been roundly denied and denounced.

Wilcox traces this “androgynous impulse” to international bodies associated with the United Nations. He documents the role played by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [CEDAW]. “This committee has called on countries like Armenia and Belarus to end public policies and practices that support distinctive maternal roles for women, such as Mother’s Day and maternal leave policies,” Wilcox reports. “Instead, it and other proponents of this type of feminist agenda would like to see public policies that promote an androgynous parenting ethic where fathers and mothers devote equal amounts of time to parenting, and parent with essentially the same style of parent-child interaction.”

In Great Britain, this is currently a matter of hot controversy. The British government is considering legislation that would equalize parental leave policies for men and women–and would encourage men to stay at home with their young children so that their wives can re-enter the workplace. Similarly, the current government in Spain has argued for making paternal leave mandatory in order to equalize male and female roles.

Wilcox sees a big problem with this approach. “The primary problem with this androgynous impulse is that it does not recognize the unique talents that men and women bring to the most fundamental unit of society: the family. A growing body of social scientific evidence confirms what common sense and many of the world’s religions tell us: Men and women do indeed bring different gifts to the parenting enterprise.”

Thus, Wilcox argues that governments should seek to protect rather than prohibit the distinctive and complementary parenting roles and styles that fathers and mothers represent.

For several years now, Bradford Wilcox has been producing some of the most interesting research in the social sciences. His path-breaking work Soft Patriarchs, New Men turned the conventional scholarly wisdom on its head. The prevailing orthodoxy in the social sciences assumed that conservative evangelical fathers would be less engaged with their children and more likely to be characterized by harsh and abusive parenting styles. Wilcox found the opposite to be the case–evangelical Christian fathers tended to be more engaged and less harsh than the population at large.

Now, he turns his considerable talents and scholarship to the issue of the complementarity of the sexes in the task of parenting the young.

At the onset, Wilcox acknowledges that not every mother or every father will possess all of the sex-specific gifts he will describe. “Nevertheless, most fathers and mothers possess sex-specific talents related to parenting,” he insists, “and society should organize parenting and work roles to take advantage of the way in which these talents tend to be distributed in sex-specific ways.”

Beyond this, he argues that the task of raising children requires many different parenting talents, and one sex “tends to excel in each of them.” For this reason, “society should build on these comparative sex-specific advantages by letting each sex take the lead in the domains where it excels.” Of course, this means confronting the androgynous impulse head-on.

Wilcox first takes a look at the distinctive talents of mothers. Essentially, he explains that mothers bring three particular talents to the task of parenting: “their capacity to breastfeed, their ability to understand infants and children, and their ability to offer nurture and comfort to their children.”

Ideological feminism doesn’t know what to do with breastfeeding. On the one hand, the discipline of breastfeeding requires a considerable investment of time on the part of the mother, making her rapid re-entry into the workplace unlikely. On the other hand, breastfeeding is understood to be tied to infant health and is a natural means for feeding and nurturing babies. As Wilcox explains, “The medical literature on the advantages of breastfeeding could not be clearer. Breast milk offers infants a range of sugars, nutrients, and antibodies unavailable in infant formula. It protects infants against at least eleven serious maladies, from ear infections to sudden infant death syndrome.” At this point, Wilcox acknowledges, “Mothers clearly have a very sex-specific advantage in parenting.” This is an advantage recognized, honored, and respected by most husbands.

Nevertheless, Wilcox insists that maternal advantages do not end with breastfeeding. He suggests that mothers excel in interpreting the physical and linguistic cues sent by their children. From the beginning, mothers are more sensitive to the distinctive cries of infants–able to distinguish between a cry of pain and a cry for attention. Beyond this, mothers are better than fathers at interpreting the emotional state of their children. This maternal talent is extended throughout the child’s school years and adolescence. As Wilcox recounts, “Adolescents report that their mothers know them better than their fathers do.”

Does biology play a part? Wilcox points to research that indicates that mothers “are primed by their hormones to engage in nurturing behavior such as hugging, praising, or cuddling.” Specifically, the hormone peptide oxytocin, released in a woman’s body during pregnancy and breastfeeding, may make mothers more interested in bonding with children. Whatever the cause, mothers tend to be better at nurturing and seem to find greater enjoyment in the nurturing task. “Children know this,” Wilcox observes.

Fathers, on the other hand, “excel when it comes to discipline, play, and challenging their children to embrace life’s challenges.” This “array of distinctive talents” indicates the importance of fathers to the parenting task.

Wilcox observes that mothers discipline their children more often than do fathers due to the larger amount of time they spend with the children. Nevertheless, “fathers do have a comparative advantage in this area,” Wilcox insists. He explains: “Typically, fathers engender more fear than mothers in their children because their comparatively greater physical strength and size, along with the pitch and inflection of their voice, telegraph toughness to their children. Fathers also are more assertive than mothers in their dealings with their children, and are less likely to bend family rules or principles for their children. In a word, fathers tend to be firmer and more compelling disciplinarians than mothers.”

This appears to be especially important in the raising of sons. Fathers “are more likely than mothers to get their boys to respond appropriately to their disciplinary strategy,” Wilcox argues, “both because of their uniquely firm approach to discipline and because boys seem more likely to respond to discipline from someone of the same sex.”

In addition, fathers play with their children in a distinctive way. Fathers are more likely to be physically engaged with their children–including infants and toddlers–and to be involved in play just for the sake of play. This paternal play plays a role in building social skills and a sense of self-control. “The playful side to fathers teaches their children how to regulate their feelings and behavior as they interact with others,” Wilcox explains.

Fathers also play an important role in challenging children to face the outside world. “Compared to mothers, fathers are more likely to encourage their children to take up difficult tasks, to seek out novel experiences, and to endure pain and hardship without yielding,” Wilcox notes.

Interestingly, Wilcox argues that fathers’ strengths in the arenas of discipline, play, and challenging behavior are tied to the distinctive position fathers fill in the family structure. “Because of the smaller role they play in procreation and because they do not have the same hormonal priming to engage in nurturing behavior as mothers do, fathers are–to some degree–more distant from their children and, more generally, from the daily emotional dynamics of family life than are mothers,” he asserts.

Some fathers may translate this distance into neglect. Nevertheless, the attentive father takes advantage of this distance “to engage their children in a distinctively fatherly way.” By this, Wilcox means that fathers often feel freer to challenge their children and to be firm in discipline. Accordingly, fathers are more likely to push their children toward an adventurous future.

Wilcox understands that the most controversial dimension of his research has to do with the distinctive role of fathers. He argues that boys “learn self-control . . . from playing with and being disciplined by a loving father.” Thus, boys who live with engaged fathers are much less likely to demonstrate the overly-aggressive behavior of what is described as “compensatory masculinity.” Without the controlling influence of a father, boys are much more prone to translate masculinity into violent behavior.

But fathers also play an important role in the raising of girls. The research indicates that fathers fulfill a very important function in minimizing the likelihood that their daughters will be sexually active prior to marriage. As Wilcox explains, “Fathers also protect their daughters from premarital sexual activity by setting clear disciplinary lines for their daughters, monitoring their whereabouts, and by signaling to young men that sexual activity will not be tolerated.”

The androgynous impulse represents a pernicious influence in society at large. By denying that men and women bring distinctive gifts to the parenting tasks as fathers and mothers, those who push this agenda weaken the family and, if successful, would rob children of the complementary parenting styles they need.

Wilcox’s point is clear–the culture at large (and governmental authorities in particular) should respect rather than denigrate the distinctive parenting talents brought by mothers and fathers. His research should also serve to remind moms and dads of our shared responsibilities in the raising of our children. We should respect each other’s distinctive talents and responsibilities.

Beyond this, Christians should understand that the Creator has created the family and the roles of mothers and fathers so that children would receive all that is necessary for them to be raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Above all, Christian parents should understand the gravity of this responsibility and should see the complementarity of the sexes as a testimony to the glory of God.

We are indebted to Bradford Wilcox for reminding us that moms and dads are important. Just how confused must one be in order to miss this?