Monday, June 09, 2008

Could I Be Wrong to Dismiss "Gatekeeping"?

There is a theory, the "gatekeeper theory," that holds that the reason that dads are not more involved in childrearing is that they're actively (if unconsciously) pushed away by moms. (There is also a parallel concept -- "momblocking" -- referring to at-home dads who do the same thing.) I've never been a big fan of the general idea, mostly because I think dads are responsible for their level of involvement, and blaming mom doesn't get you very far. (I think dadblocking is absurd for other reasons, too.)

But I like to think I'm open minded about parenting and gender roles, so I need to share the result of "the first study to examine things moms actually do on a day-to-day basis that have the potential to affect dads’ behavior,"which was conducted by the fine folks from Ohio State. Researchers followed 97 Midwestern couples and assessed whether dads were encouraged or criticized by moms and how involved they were.

The findings bolster the "gatekeeper" idea:

A study of 97 couples found that fathers were more involved in the day-to-day care of their infants when they received active encouragement from their wife or partner.

In fact, this encouragement was important even after taking into account fathers’ and mothers’ views about how involved dads should be, the overall quality of the couple’s parenting relationship, and how much mothers worked outside the home.

In addition, fathers’ beliefs about how involved they should be in child care did not matter when mothers were highly critical of fathers’ parenting. In other words, fathers didn’t put their beliefs into practice when faced with a particularly judgmental mother.

“Mothers are in the driver’s seat,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.

“Mothers can be very encouraging to fathers, and open the gate to their involvement in child care, or be very critical, and close the gate.

“This is the first real evidence that mothers, through their behavior, act as gatekeepers by either fostering or curtailing how much fathers take part in caring for their baby.”

I'll keep an eye on the research (the Ohio State researchers got a grant for a cool $400,000 to launch an expanded study of the topic), even if I'm inclined to continue my skepticism. My bottom line: if you're a dad and you're not as involved as you want to be with the kids, that's your fault, not your spouse's.

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