Is There a Universal Father Play Style

Some cross-cultural studies support the generality of this pattern of mother-father differences in play style. Parents in England and Australia show similar gender differences (Russell and Russell, 1987; Smith and Daglish, 1977). However, other evidence suggests that this pattern of mother-father differences in play style may be, in part, culture bound. Specifically, neither in Sweden (Lamb, Frodi, Hwang, and Frodi, 1982) nor among Israeli kibbutz families (Sagi et al., 1985) were there clear gender-of-parent differences in the tendency to engage in play or in the types of play initiated. As Sagi et al. (1985, p. 283) observed: "Perhaps this reflects the more egalitarian arrangements effective (at least during observation period) in Sweden and Israel than in the United States. This would suggest that, at least in regard to Sweden and Israel, sex differences in maternal and paternal behavior, are influenced by the concrete competing demands on the parents' time, as well as by their socialization and biogenetic tendencies."

Similarly, Chinese Malaysian, Taiwanese, and Thai mothers and fathers reported that they rarely engaged in physical play with their children (Sun and Roopnarine, 1996; see Lamb, 1987, for review). Among middle-socioeconomic Indian families in New Delhi, fathers and mothers are more likely to display affection than to play with infants while holding them. Although mothers engaged in more object-mediated play than fathers, there were no other differences in the play styles of mothers and fathers. Most interesting was the finding that the frequency of rough physical play was very low—less than once per hour (Roopnarine, Hooper, Ahmeduzzaman, and Pollock, 1993). Observations of Aka pygmies of Central Africa by Hewlett (1991) are consistent with this pattern. In this culture, mothers and fathers rarely, if ever, engage in vigorous or physical type of play. Instead both display affection and engage in plenty of close physical contact. In other cultures, such as Italy, neither mothers nor fathers but other women in the extended family or within the community are more likely to play physically with infants (New and Benigni, 1987).

Whether these distinctively female and male play styles are due to cultural influences or to biological factors remains a puzzle for future researchers to solve. However, the fact that male monkeys show the same rough-and-tumble physical style of play as human fathers suggests that we cannot ignore a possible biological component in play styles of mothers and fathers (Lovejoy and Wallin, 1988; Parke and Suomi, 1981). Moreover, males monkeys tend to respond more positively to bids for rough-and-tumble play more than females do (Meany, Stewart, and Beatty, 1985). Perhaps, as Maccoby (1988, p. 271) states, "males may be more susceptible to being aroused into states of positive excitement and unpredictability than females"—a speculation that is consistent with gender differences in risk taking and sensation seeking. In addition, males, whether boys and young men, tend to behave more boisterously and show more positive affect than females (Maccoby, 1998). Together these threads of the puzzle suggest that predisposing biological differences between females and males may play a role in the play patterns of mothers and fathers. At the same time, the cross-cultural data clearly underscore the ways in which cultural and environmental contexts shape play patterns of mothers and fathers and remind us of the high degree of plasticity of human social behaviors.

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