What A Son Needs from His Dad
- Time. It’s well established that positive parenting behaviors are protective factors for kids against the onset of both externalizing (disobedience, aggression) and internalizing (anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders) problems. In a recent study examining these protective factors, married fathers who reported frequently shopping, playing a sport, going to entertainment events, playing games, cooking, and/or watching television with their kids were more likely to have children who did not exhibit either sysmptom—an effect that was even more pronounced in sons than in daughters.
- “The Talk.” Any trusted adult could talk to boys about sex at an appropriate age, but research shows that for boys with a father in the home, this conversation is typically facilitated by him. Studies suggest, however, that fathers experience a low sense of self-efficacy when it comes to having these conversations with their kids—for example, evidence implies that fathers feel especially incompetent in explaining to their sons how to say no to sex. Researchers fear this parental insecurity will limit the amount of information and guidance boys receive.
- An upstanding, law-abiding example. According to longitudinal research on thousands of fathers and their sons, men who break the law are far more likely to have fathers who did the same. Among sons of law-abiding fathers, only 4 percent were convicted of more than one delinquent act. In contrast, about 40 percent of sons of law-breaking fathers committed more than one such crime. The authors of this study were careful to caution that a wide variety of socio-cultural factors also play a role in increasing or decreasing the likelihood of delinquent behavior.
- Affection and tenderness. Research shows that children of dads who treated them affectionately as an infant scored higher on standardized measures of cognitive ability in reading and math at age 4, findings that held true regardless of ethnicity. Specifically, a dad’s frequency of kissing and hugging his son at age 2 was one of the factors loading onto a construct of “warmth” that positively predicted his son’s scores.
What a Son Needs From His Mom
- Non-coercive parenting. Coercive parenting refers to a common cycle in which a parent directs a child’s behavior, is met with refusal, and increases the severity of the demand on the child, who responds with arguing, yelling, or acting out until finally the parent gives up, which reinforces the initial misbehavior. In a large sample of young boys and their mothers followed for more than 10 years, researchers found that boys with mothers who employed coercive parenting experienced higher rates of conduct problems and social problems, including rejection by other children, while more positive, adaptive parenting strategies helped boys develop positive social skills and better sense of self.
- Minimal conflict and maximum warmth. “Warmth” does not mean permissiveness or over-indulgence: Warm mothers are loving, firm, kind, and invested in their son’s development. But warmth, like conflict, is not a variable that is entirely under the control of a parent. Still, moms who work hard to minimize conflict and maximize the warmth they share with their son, research suggests, are more apt to set their child up for developing healthy social skills like making friends, while lessening the boy’s likelihood of engaging in such behavior as acting out in school.
- Encouraging executive function. Modeling is an important part of positive parenting. A “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy is not a firm foundation on which to teach the next generation about life skills. In a study about what attributes helped mothers foster their son’s ability to self-regulate, which broadly encompasses self-control, decision-making, and emotion-management skills—researchers discovered two key factors. Women who maintained a trusting, attached relationship with their son aided in the establishment of such executive control. Conversely, mothers with antagonistic parenting practices, such as undermining or manipulation, had sons who did not as readily display these behaviors.
- Avoidance of harsh criticism. Mothers’ harsh criticism of their young son, research has found, predicts symptoms of oppositional defiance: Moms who are more vocally critical are more likely to have a son who misbehaves. It is, of course, true that boys who misbehave are more likely to elicit criticism from their mother, but harsh criticism generally doesn’t help. When moms employ harsh criticism, they do not effectively target their son’s misbehavior. Interestingly, the same link with misbehavior was found for emotional over- involvement—defined as extreme over-protective and self-sacrificing behaviors.