Qualitative Effects Stylistic Differences in Mother and Father Interaction

Fathers participate less than mothers in caregiving but spend a greater percentage of the time available for interaction in play activities than mothers do. In the United States, Kotelchuck (1976) found that fathers spent a greater percentage of their time with their infants in play (37.5%) than mothers did (25.8%), although in absolute terms mothers spent more time than fathers in play with their children.

Similar findings have been reported from a longitudinal investigation of parent-infant interaction in England (Richards, Dunn, and Antonis, 1977). Playing with their infants at 30 and 60 weeks of age was the most common activity of fathers, and over 90% of the fathers played regularly with their infants. Lamb (1977) observed interactions among mothers, fathers, and infants in their homes when the infants 7 to 8 months of age and again when they were 12 to 13 months of age. Marked differences emerged in the reasons that fathers and mothers pick up infants: Fathers were more likely to hold the babies simply to play with them, whereas mothers were far more likely to hold them for caregiving purposes.

More recent studies of African American (Hossain and Roopnarine, 1994) and Latino (Hossain, Field, Malphurs, Valle, and Pickens, 1995) fathers yield a similar pattern: Fathers spend more of their time in play with their children. For example, African American fathers spent 54% of their time in play compared with only 38% for mothers. It is not only the quantity of time in play that discriminates between mother and father involvement in infancy; the quality of play activity does so as well. Power and Parke (1982) observed mothers and fathers interacting with their 8-month-old infants in a laboratory playroom. Fathers played more bouncing and lifting games, especially with boys, than mothers did. In contrast, mothers played more watching games in which a toy is presented and made salient by moving or shaking it. Observations of father- and mother-infant interactions in unstructured home contexts with older infants reveals similar mother-father differences in play style (Clarke-Stewart, 1978, 1980; Lamb, 1977).

Nor are these effects evident only during a child's infancy. MacDonald and Parke (1984), in an observational study of the play interaction patterns between mothers and fathers and 3- and 4-year-old toddlers, found that fathers engaged in more physical play with their children than mothers did, whereas mothers engaged in more object-mediated play than fathers did. According to MacDonald and Parke (1986), the fathers' distinctive role as a physical play partner changes with age, however. Physical play was highest between fathers and 2-year-old toddlers; when the children were between 2 and 10 years of age there was a decreased likelihood that fathers would engage their children physically.

In spite of the decline in physical play across age, fathers are still more often physical play partners than mothers. In an Australian study of parents and their 6- to 7-year-old children (Russell and Russell, 1987), fathers were more involved in physical or outdoor play interactions and fixing things around the house and garden than mothers were. In contrast, mothers were more actively involved in caregiving and household tasks and in school work. Mothers were also involved in more reading, playing with toys, and helping with arts and crafts.

In all studies reviewed, a reasonably consistent pattern emerges: Fathers are tactile and physical, and mothers tend to be verbal, didactic and toy mediated in their play. Clearly infants and young children experience not only more stimulation from their fathers, but a qualitatively different stimulatory pattern.

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