by John Hoffman
Are you less affectionate with your kids than your partner is with them? If so, do you ever wonder what that means? Or do you worry that people might think you don’t love your kid that much (or that your kids might even think that)?
Spoiler alert. Don’t worry. You’re probably normal.
It’s no secret that, in general, women are more touchy-feely than men, especially with kids. When you were a kid, weren’t women (and not just your mother) more likely to touch and hug you than men? It’s also true that a lot of people’s ideas about what good “responsive” parenting means is based on mothering. (That’s likely because women were the main caregivers to kids for a long time.)
Anyway, the point is that a father who is not all that affectionate may appear to some people to be a little distant, or cold—maybe even less loving, some might think. I don’t think that’s fair because, as many fatherhood pundits will tell you, fathers tend to parent differently than moms.
I remember a conversation I had 10 or so years ago with some female researchers who had developed these research scales for measuring sensitive responsive parenting. They were very concerned because when they started including fathers in their research, many dads’ behaviour didn’t even register on low end their scales. They took that to mean that many fathers weren’t sensitive enough, so people like me needed to teach dads to be more sensitive.
I was almost positive that their scales were based on observations of mothers. So they were thinking that dads had to interact with kids the way moms did. I didn’t agree.
And neither does Kory Floyd, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona. He’s done a lot of research on how affection is communicated in close relationships. His observation is that men do it differently from women, particularly with their sons. “Dads who shower their daughters with affection may go years without telling their sons they love them,” he says. “Men are often chided by their wives or mothers for not being willing to show more affection to their dads or their sons.”
But just because fathers don’t express themselves the way mothers do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they love their kids any less. Men’s ways of communicating love are often more subtle, he says. “Showing affection is more about what they do than what they say.”
That totally resonates with my own experience and observations. Now I think I’ve been a relative affectionate dad – physically. I loved physical contact with my kids and I have always been telling other fathers that physical contact helps build relationships and that kids (and dads) need it. (I said that right here last month.). But still, I never did show affection quite the way my wife did. And I’ve watched lots of fathers who were not that affectionate physically, or not very apt to say “I love you” (in public anyway), show their love through what they did. Sometimes it was things like building a backyard play structure for their kids, or spending hours playing catch, or pitching a ball to a kid who wanted to learn baseball.
I remember this guy I watched at a father-son dinner a number of years ago. His seven-year-old was out of sorts, upset about something or other. Some fathers might have disciplined the boy or hissed at him to smarten up. Some mothers might have tried to calm the child with hugs and soothing words. This guy did neither. He wasn’t outwardly affectionate. He leaned in toward the boy, talked to him quietly for a minute. Then he told the boy he needed some help with something and they went off for a couple of minutes. When they came back the kid was calm and ready to enjoy the dinner. I don’t know what happened in that time away from the table. But what this dad did not do was make the boy feel worse. He didn’t give the kid a hard time for feeling bad. He didn’t embarrass him or try to get “tough.” He kept his voice low, treated the boy with dignity, and helped him feel better. He did it gently, but in a way that was not outwardly affectionate or tender. But it was very effective. And very loving. And, I would say, fairly male.
So, if you ever get the feeling that you aren’t affectionate enough, or expressive enough, try to remember that there are lots of different ways dads can show their love. When it comes to loving kids, showing is more important than telling, in my opinion. And dads often show differently from moms. And that’s OK.
The quote from Kory Floyd were taken from his article The Understated Affection of Fathers on theconversation.com.