I Can Do This: How a Father’s Sense of Competence Affects His Parenting

Although fathers have been playing a more and more active role in the lives of their children, most of the talk about “child rearing” still focuses on the mother.  Today, we are going to change that.  Similarly to a mother’s role, a father’s role is not defined by some established entity, but instead is determined by whatever that couple and that child needs it to be.  Nevertheless, societal forces in shaping both how men often see fatherhood and the preparation they often get for this role cannot be overlooked.

According to research, a father’s extent of involvement in childcare is often determined by how much, if at all, the mother works outside the home.   As would be expected, the more hours the mother works, the more extensive the father’s involvement is.  Nevertheless, this increased involvement does not necessarily mean more hours spent with the children.  Research has found that fathers spend about the same amount of time with the children regardless of their wife’s employment.  However, when their wives work, fathers are much more likely to be spending that time with the child alone, as their primary caregiver[i].  The difference in the fathers’ care-taking responsibilities between those with wives who do not work compared to those who do is most pronounced when the children are very young and demand the most time and attention.

What is interesting is that the satisfaction with this involvement for fathers also varies with how many hours the mother works.  More specifically, the more hours the mother works, the less satisfied the father tends to be with providing childcare. This seems less to do with the number of hours that fathers in such arrangements are taking care of the child, but more with the kind of child caring that the father is doing[ii].  When the mother either does not work outside the home or works a few hours, she often does the “necessary” childcare, and the father is left to engage in the childcare he chooses to engage in.  On the other hand, when the mother also works extensively, the father is asked to do everything.   This is supported by the finding that when the mother works, the father is more likely to engage in physical caring for the child and managing the child’s schedule than when the mother does not work.  This, according to research, sometimes leaves men feeling unprepared for the role of father-as-all-needs-caretaker.  This lack of sense of competence decreases the satisfaction they feel from the role.    Furthermore, parents who do not perceive themselves as competent, may avoid difficult parenting tasks, such as discipline, in turn confirming for themselves that they are not effective parents and preventing them from developing improved skills[iii].   This was especially true as it related to the father’s belief that he is able to “control” the child’s behavior, as this was a large determinant of the sense of competence.  Not surprisingly, high perceived competence has been found to be associated with a range of positive parenting behaviors.

It is important to note, that the above states “sense of competence” not actual ability.  This is a appraisal that fathers make of themselves, and because this is an appraisal, it can be changed.  Changing this appraisal to a more positive one would lead to a more enjoyable child caring experience.    Below are some likely thoughts that may be leading to a decrease sense of competence and ways to dispute them:

Thought: “I am going to break him.”

Dispute: “I am always very careful when handling the baby.  Plus, the delivery process is very difficult, if he didn’t break then, he is unlikely to break now.”


Thought: “My wife really knows what she is doing when she cares for the kids.  I cannot do it like she does, so I must be doing it wrong.”

Dispute: “There are a million ways to provide great care for my kids. Although I don’t take care of my child as my wife does, that does not make my way wrong, and in the past, she has adopted some of my techniques.”


Thought: “I will wait for my wife to tell me what she needs help with in terms of the kids.”

Dispute: “It is not my wife’s responsibility to tell me what is needed, it is mine.  I am not her helper I am just as much a parent to my child as she is.”


Thought: “It is too late for me to learn new skills.”

Dispute:  “If I accepted a new work position, I would expect a learning curve as I develop proficiency.  This is the same thing, I need to learn how to be a father to this child.”


Thought: “I am not good at childcare, but I am good at my job, so I should concentrate on working and capitalize on my talents.”

Dispute: “As with a new job, I should expect that it takes time to get good at being a father, and I should not avoid childcare tasks because that is how I am going to get proficient.


[i] Wang & Bianchi (2009)

[ii] Mikie et al., (2004)

[iii] Rominov, Giallo and Whelan (2016)


Never Enough: Mothers’ Beliefs about Time Spent with their Children

Last week, we talked about making sure that those things that are important to you get done, and there is a clear advantage to learning to prioritize tasks and taking control of your time.  But what happens when the time you want to contribute to something exceeds the number of hours you could possibly give it?  This is often the case with time spent with children.  According to research, approximately half of America’s parents do not think that they spend enough time with their children (Mikie et al., 2004). Interestingly, this percentage has risen despite the fact that it was found that today’s parents spend objectively more time with their children than the parents of previous generations (Bianchi, 2000). Furthermore, parents continue to feel that they do not spend enough time with their children, regardless of how much time they actually spend with them (Mikie et al., 2004).  Thus, this appears to do more with what parents think and expect of themselves than with the actual things they are able to do with and for their children.

Since there is a difference in the experience that mothers and fathers have in this area, the discussion below will focus on mothers, and we will talk about fathers next week.  This is necessary because although fathers may objectively spend less time with their children than mothers, mothers sometimes feel more “time strain” due to the expectation that they should always be available for their children and put their children ahead of all other obligations.  This expectation originates in modern culture but is also believed by many mothers.  Therefore, again, the problem at hand is not actual time spent but beliefs about time and obligations.

However, before we can discuss how to change beliefs, let’s talk about some of the numbers that research has found.  Mikie and colleagues found that mothers spend 50 hours per week with their children.  Of that time, 16 hours were spent engaging in “focused activities,” which means that the mother was doing something with the child rather than doing the dishes while the child played nearby.  It was also found that the younger the child, the more time the mother spent directly interacting with the child.  Another interesting find was that the more hours a parent worked, the more likely they were to feel that they do not spend enough time with their children, again regardless of how much time was actually spent with them.  Meaning that if each of the two mothers spent 15 hours per week with her respective child, the mother who worked more hours was more likely to feel “time stain.”  The feeling of “time stain” is also exacerbated by the fact that if parents have other obligations, they may not be able to tend to their child if something unexpected comes up or may miss activities that the child wishes the parent attended.

So, what do these findings mean for us? Since only 5% of surveyed parents felt that they spend “too much time” with their children, mothers need to accept that no matter what they do, they will be left with the feeling that it is not enough.  Thus, when a mother has the thought “I again didn’t spend enough time with my child this week,” she can try to combat that thought with “There is no such thing as ‘enough.’  I was able to take play with my son for two hours yesterday and that was a great experience for both of us.”  So, instead of focusing on the abstract concept of “enough,” focus on the specific activities you were able to do.  Moreover, once you identify specific activities that you would like to do more of going forward, they can be prioritized in the parents’ schedule using the techniques suggested last week.

Moreover, constantly focusing on the things you are not doing with your child, takes away from being able to derive pleasure from the things that you ARE doing.  For example, instead of saying  to yourself “I read a story to my daughter today, “ you are likely saying “Why can’t I find the time to read to my daughter every day.”  The first thought is likely to lead to a feeling of happiness and the second is likely to lead to guilt.  Thus, whether or not you read to your daughter the following night is unlikely to impact the feeling unless the underlying thought is changed.  Furthermore, if we think about the numbers discussed above, mothers spend 16 hours per week in child-focused activities, for perspective, that is the equivalent of one full day from morning to night.  Most mothers do not give themselves sufficient credit for the time they are able to carve out in their over packed schedules instead they continue to live with guilt.

Finally, because mothers have such a great fear of not spending “enough time,” they often have great expectations for the time that they are able to spend with their child.  For example, a mother who works full time may take the day off to spend a special day with her child.  However, on the morning of the “special day,” the child is in a bad mood or wants to spend some time by himself.  This may leave the mother feeling more upset than she would have if this were a “typical day.”  The mother is likely to be thinking of all of the things she had to cancel and ignore to make this day possible, and the child is “wasting it,” and as a result, she will again feel like she did not spend enough time with the child.  This results in the mother feeling angry and potentially taking this anger out on the child.  Thus, a day that may have been salvaged by readjusting plans to something that works for everyone, is ruined in the mother’s mind because it does not match her expectation of the day and brings her no closer to “enough spent time.”  On the other hand, if the mother felt less pressure to make every single minute with her child “count,” she may be able to approach such a day with less angst.  This is a parallel experience to why people are often disappointed in the holiday season: the expectation of perfect family time does not match what actual time with the family looks like.  Therefore, accepting that you are doing your best and enjoying those things that you are able to do without added the pressure will likely lead to healthier and happier mothers , which in term leads to healthier and happier children.


The Myth of Work/Life Balance: Learning to Set Priorities and Boundaries

Have you ever blown off meetings because your kid got sick? Have you ever had an urgent thing come up at work and you scrambled for a last minute babysitter and didn’t come home until the kids were asleep? Is that balance? You are likely to respond that it is not.  However, you might discount these examples as emergencies and expect the rest of your life have work/life balance. Be honest with yourself and you will realize that each day is like this to some extent.  Moreover, work is as much a part of your life as other important things, such as family.  So, how can you balance the whole with its part?  Telling yourself that there is a balance that you are not achieving is just making you feel guilty and that you are failing at something important.  It is hard enough to get through the day without also feeling like a constant failure, especially since that feeling can only interfere with actually getting things done.  Instead, you should focus on managing each given day.

It is important to remember that the list of possible work tasks and home chores is never ending.  Thus, expecting to finish everything is unachievable.  Instead, use the techniques below to gain some control over your time.  This may not produce “balance,” but it will help to make sure that those things that are important to you at any given time are getting done.

The word “balancing” suggests that you are spending equal time on all things, but most often that is not what you need to be doing.  Instead of striving for equality among commitments, try starting each day by building a list of tasks that are a “must” for that day. Include all of the day’s musts: work, family and household.  Then go back and add in an element that rarely makes it onto the list of musts for many busy people – self-care.  Try to include an item of self-care, however you define it, on the list at least several times per week.  After you completed this list, take honest stock of your day.  Based on how much time there is in this particular day, how many of the musts will and will not get done?  If it does not look like there is enough time, reassess your list and move some items to the “It would be great if these things were done” category.  This category will hold those items that will get done when you have a chance to do them, but they are not priorities.  It is important to be honest with yourself that there is a large chance that items in this category will not get done on that day.  Please keep in mind, for the above technique to work, you have to dive right into your “musts.”  Procrastinating or pursuing “would be great” tasks undermines the entire approach.

The list of musts should not only include items that are urgent.  This list should also include those items that will take less time and will be easier if done now than if you wait until they become urgent.  For example, a dental wellness check up may not seem like a “must” because nothing hurts.  But, if you keep putting it off until something hurts, and only then put it on the list, the procedures involved will be more elaborate, painful and costly both in money and time.  In other words, musts are things that would be hurt by not getting done today.

After determining what must get done, protect those priorities from things that will attempt to encroach on the time.  Following the dentist example from above, imagine you decided that this is a must for today and have scheduled an appointment.  However, an hour before the appointment time, you get an invitation for a play date that you think your child would love.  Your first thought may be, “I can go to the dentist a different day.”  At that point, remind yourself that the dentist appointment is a “must” and the play date is not.  Go to the dentist.

Also, try to remember that other people’s emergencies are not necessarily yours.  For instance, imagine that your must for the day is to prepare for an important meeting that will take place at the end of the week.  Then, midway through the morning, your colleague sends you an email asking for something that he needs from you ASAP.  This does not necessarily mean that the email takes priority over your prep time.  Find out how truly urgent this information is, and whether it can wait until you finish your “must tasks.”

Practice setting boundaries and sticking to them.  For example, if you want to get home in time for family dinner, determine what time you have to leave work to make that happen.  Set an alarm and make it a point to actually leave at that time whether or not you completed the task you were working on.  This sounds unreasonable, but if you were accurate in determining your must activities, then by the end of the day you are working on things that are “good to have done” and those can wait until tomorrow.

Often the busier the person, the more reluctant they are to ask for assistance because “it will be faster if I do it myself.” However, given the number of tasks that are likely on your list at any given time, it is probably unrealistic that you can get through them without assistance.  Furthermore, even if you could get everything you need done by yourself, why should you if support is available.  Of course there are situations where you have no choice but to do everything yourself, but those are rare for most people.  Moreover, you may benefit from devoting your attention to those tasks that only you can do.  For example, if you are the person who cooks in the house, then maybe you focus on cooking while someone else goes and picks up your children from school.  It will take time initially to pair people with the tasks that their suited for, but in the end this will save you time.

The techniques described above are of course easier described than implemented, and there will be times when life feels out of control.  But, understanding that priorities can change day to day will help make life feel more manageable if not “balanced.”  Moreover, acknowledging that by making a choice to do something you are choosing not to do something else, rather than failing to get it done, may, in the end, make you feel more in control of your life.

To Tell or Not to Tell: Talking to Young Children about Illness and Death

The adult world is unfortunately full of problems and worries.  As a result, parents often walk a fine line between burdening children with adult problems and not providing enough information for the child to interpret their environment.  Hopefully the tips below will both help you make such decisions and give you tips for how to have these difficult conversations with your children if you decide that they are necessary.

Adults often say that they did not tell their children about a family crisis or loss because “we were trying to protect them.”  By this, parents mean that they did not want their children to worry about the things that they themselves worry about.   The younger the child, the more likely the parents are to feel this way.  However, what parents often forget is the fact that children, even very young ones, are very observant and sensitive to changes in their environments.  For example, you are four years old, and you see your usually happy mother walking around in a daze and looking sad.  She does not tell you what is wrong, and when you ask, she says everything is fine.  But even your four-year-old self knows that this is not true.  What does the child do in such situations? The child fills in the blanks with their imagination in the same way they do with everything else in the adult world that does not make sense.  Thus, the child might assume that the parent is mad at them or that something bad happened to the parent.   It also suggests to the child that whatever is “wrong” with the parent is too dangerous to tell the child.  Both of these factors often lead children to imagine situations that are far worse than what is actually happening.  These extreme imaginings also often lead to new unpleasant behaviors, such as acting out, that the parent has to deal with on top of whatever difficulty they were already experiencing.  Thus, it is often a good idea to explain to the child what is going on in the family on an age-appropriate level rather than leave it up to them to figure out.

Parents are especially likely to avoid the topics of severe family illness or death.  Many parents avoid talking about such topics if it can be avoided.  However, the child sees the parent distressed and on edge and may benefit from an explanation of what is going on.  However, the distressed parent often does not know where to even begin this kind of conversation if they decide they do want to say something.  Again, the tips below concentrate on speaking to younger children since by the time children are in their teens, this conversation begins to sound a lot more like it would with an adult, and the parents have an easier time imagining this kind of conversation.

A good place to start when thinking about having this kind of conversation is to understand that for young children the world revolves around them. Thus, the first thing you want to do is assure children that their world is safe and stable. Here are some ways to do that:

  • If the current crisis does not affect the child’s world, say that. Explain that they will continue to go to school, go to their activities, eat dinner and go to bed or whatever is their normal routine.
  • On the other hand, if their routine will be effected, explain clearly in what way, and what the new plan is. For example, “Mommy usually puts you to bed, but she will have to be with grandma in the hospital, so Daddy will put you to bed.”   Obviously, the fewer changes, the easier it will be for the child.  To facilitate this, try to keep all unrelated areas of the child’s life as unchanged as possible. This would not be a good time to switch extracurricular activities.
  • Explain what is going on in narrow and concrete words. For instance, “Grandpa is in the hospital because his heart is having trouble working.  The doctors gave him a machine that is helping him.  He has to stay in the hospital until his heart is better and does not need the machine anymore.”  The child does not need all of the information, so provide just enough to put into context the snippets they hear from adult conversation.
  • If there was a death, again the narrower the explanation the better, as this avoids creating fears of everyday things. Consider saying something like this, “Sometimes people get a special kind of sickness that makes their body stop working, so she cannot do the things she used to do any more, like play and eat and sleep.”
  • Try to avoid overgeneralizations as explanations. These are the most common overgeneralizations use:
    • “She was very sick so she died:” This makes children fear illness which happens in their world frequently.
    • “He was old so he died:” To children, most adults seem “old,” so they can have trouble telling apart who is “old enough to die” and even if they have figured this out, they probably know many elderly people and they do not need to be concerned about all of them suddenly dying
    • “He will sleep forever:” This can make children fear going to sleep since they begin to fear not waking up.
  • If a child loses interest in this conversation quickly, let them go. You do not need to get all of the information out to them at once. They may only be able to processes bits, and those things that seem earth-shattering to adults, have no consequences for a child, and thus may be mostly ignored. Do not judge a child’s emotional intelligence by their reaction.  Meaning, do not say to yourself, “My child is so uncaring, he was not even sad that grandma died.” Children grieve differently than adults, let them.  Do not impose adult mourning ideas by saying things like “we cry a lot,” but do acknowledge the way you feel.  For instance, “The fact that grandma is not going to be able to come and be with us again makes me sad, so you may see me cry and now you will know why.”
  • Open the door to questions and memories, despite your visible sadness. Try saying something like, “Even though I am sad about grandma, I still love to talk about all the great times we had together” or “even though I am sad, I can still answer anything that you want to know.”  You want to avoid having the child feel like they have to take care of you by avoiding the subject because you are sad.  Also, tell them that it is okay not to have any questions now, but if they think of any later, they should come back and tell you.
  • Children learn and process through play. Thus, as strange and morbid as it may look, children may include the idea of death or severe illness in their play.  This is normal and should not be discouraged.  However, if you have a chance to be either included in this play or at least observe it, you may be able to ascertain which aspects the child understands and which they do not.
  • If your family has religious beliefs that inform the situation, then explain to the child how what happens fits in. If you do not have religious beliefs, try to be prepared to answer questions regarding what happens to the person’s body after death. Again, keep your answers short and to the point.

Every parent dreads this kind of conversation, and yet death and illness are unavoidable, and so are these conversations.  Often after such a conversation takes place, the parent is even more relieved than the child.  If the first of such experiences goes well and does not appear to be traumatic for the child, the parents are more likely to return to this strategy in the future.



Happy Mother’s Day: Not Such an Easy Phrase

On May 14, millions of people in this country will wish women “Happy Mother’s Day.”  This greeting is common on the day whether the two people know each other or not.  Although for most women this represents a nice gesture, for others, it triggers deep hurt and anxiety.  For a woman who is having a difficult time conceiving, every reference to motherhood, no matter how seemingly benign, may be painful.

Unfortunately, the situation is not much easier on the other 364 days of the year.  Many women of childbearing years are frequently asked “When are you going to have children?” and “Don’t you want to have children?” and “You are getting older, you should consider having children now.”  These common phrases not only remind her of the fact that what she desires so much has not happened, but it forces her to either lie, come up with an excuse or disclose more information than she may be comfortable disclosing.   If you are having difficulty conceiving, in preparation for the difficulty you are likely to face on Mother’s Day as well as for the duration of this difficult process, the best thing you can do is be prepared.  Identify what you will say in certain common situation and to certain people.

Sadly, things are not only difficult with those people who do not know that you are trying to conceive; it is often even worse with those people who do know.  For example, you may be getting frequent calls asking about progress, which again forces you to either have to restate the painful truth or have to lie.  Even more frustrating may be the people who think they know how to solve your problem.  You hear things like “just relax” or “you just need to go on vacation.”  Since people who are trying to conceive often know their fertility window to the minute, it is difficult to “relax” under these circumstances because if you miss the fertility window, you will have “lost” this month.

Moreover, on the day that her period is supposed to start, a woman in this situation likely alternates between panic and extreme hope. Again, this is not a likely circumstance for relaxation.  And being unable to relax like everyone says she should often makes her feel like she is to blame for the problem, which makes an already difficult situation that much more painful.  If this is happening, it is probably best not to engage with people who make such suggestions; they likely do not know what the process of “try to conceive” looks like.  If you have the kind of relationship with this person, where you can explain how such comments affect you, then say something because they may stop when they understand the impact.  However, if you don’t have that kind of relationship, then avoid engaging as much as possible.  If the topic comes up, switch topics.  You do not have to have this discussion with anyone who you do not want to have this discussion with.

Other sources of frustration come from all the stories that are told to you as a way of comfort.  Such stories include, “My friend could not conceive for a year and now she has 2 beautiful children.”  What stories like this do is make the listener feel like she again failed at something since “everyone is having a baby except me, so it must be me.”  Another problem is that these stories do not help anyone because other people’s stories may not be relevant.  In such cases a brief response and changing the topic may work.  So, when hearing the next story, you can be prepared and say “I know that they must be so happy.”

Women who are trying to conceive also often become overly sensitive to the body’s cues in order to avoid missing the news of their own pregnancy.  Every time their stomach is upset or they feel very tired, these feelings are likely to be attributed to a potential pregnancy.  Try to remind yourself that prior to the time of the first missed period, only in rare cases are there symptoms that early.  Also keep in mind that since you are likely actively monitoring your cycle, it is unlikely that you will miss finding out that you are pregnant.

To the readers who are not living through this difficulty, on May 14, before wishing someone a Happy Mother’s Day, think whether or not it is something that they would want to hear.  If you are not sure, err on the side of saying nothing.