Competence Versus Performance

The lower level of father involvement in caregiving and other forms of interaction does not imply that fathers are less competent than mothers to care for infants and children. Competence can be measured in a variety of ways: One approach is to measure the parent's sensitivity to infant cues in the feeding context. Success in caregiving, to a large degree, depends on the parent's ability to correctly "read" or interpret the infant's behavior so that the parent's own behavior can be regulated to respond appropriately. Parke and Sawin (1975, 1976) found that fathers' sensitivities to a variety of cues— auditory distress signals during feeding (sneeze, spitup, cough), vocalizations, mouth movements— was just as marked as mothers' responsitivities to these cues. Both fathers and mothers adjusted their behavior (e.g., looked more closely, vocalized) in response to these infant cues. In a later study (Parke and Sawin, 1980), it was shown that parent vocalizations can modify infant vocalizations. Interaction between fathers and infants—even in the newborn period—is clearly bidirectional in quality; parents and infants mutually regulate each other's behavior in the course of interaction. In spite of the fact that they may spend less time overall in caregiving activities, fathers are as sensitive as mothers to infant cues and as responsive to them in the feeding context. Moreover, the amount of milk consumed by infants with their mothers and fathers in this study was very similar, which suggests that fathers and mothers are not only comparable in their sensitivity but equally successful in feeding the infant. If a competence-performance distinction is made, fathers may not necessarily be as frequent contributors to infant feeding, but when called on they have the competence to execute these tasks effectively.

Fathers' abilities to perform caregiving tasks do not appear to be different from those of mothers when their children are in middle childhood as well. As Russell and Russell (1987) found, both parents reported that they were involved on a regular basis in a variety of caregiving activities even though mothers were higher in their frequencies. For example, both mothers and fathers report "having a cuddle" very nearly every day and fathers as well as mothers "go over their child's day" and "sit and have a talk" almost every day. Moreover, the degree of warmth expressed by mothers and fathers to their children is similar, although the behavioral manifestations of how warmth is expressed varies as a function of both gender of parent and gender of child (Russell and Russell, 1989). Finally, as noted earlier, fathers can function effectively as managers and supervisors of their children's activities, but do so less than mothers on a routine basis (Bhavnagri and Parke, 1991; Coltrane, 1996; Ladd et al., 1992). Again it appears that fathers are capable of this type of caregiving function but execute this function less regularly than mothers. On balance, however, the evidence suggests that fathers are competent caregivers.

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