Over at Daddy Dialectic today, Jeremy Adam Smith published the results of his “Parenting While Male” survey, directed at dads who are primary caregivers who regularly take their kids to the park. Playground power struggles, it seems, are not just for kids.
Smith, author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family (Beacon 2009), asked 74 dads about the way they were treated by moms and other parents on the playgrounds where they took their children.
The majority of the men responding reported that they spent at least 30 hours a week as primary caregiver. Twenty-four percent claimed they had been refused entry to a playground or playgroup, while a majority had felt they had been criticized by other parents in public. Most also felt this treatment was based on the fact that they were male.
This treatment caused the men to change their behavior or parenting styles. Some reported becoming more reserved, and less involved. One father pointed out that he avoided touching any children in any way—even while helping them hold a baseball bat—for fear of being pegged as a creep, or worse.
This begs the question: can you be too careful? Touch is, after all, part of the human connection. These men are, in some ways, prevented from being human. Not that we should let all men touch kids indiscriminately. But, there’s a line (you know, Good Touch/Bad Touch), and it shouldn’t be drawn so as to cut men off completely.
If these men, who are not only fathers on the playground, but coaches, role models, and mentors, too—if these men are prevented from being human in this way, what is that teaching the children about the role men play in their lives? A society that believes in gender equality should recognize the importance of men as well as women in raising kids. As more and more men take on the traditional homemaker’s role, we are going to see a lot more dads at mom’s groups. Moms, you’re going to have to make room. But this is a good thing.
Let me take a step back. We don’t need to launch a full-fledged Men’s Rights campaign or seek ways to wage war against overprotective mommies in the public sphere. That would be completely counterproductive. Feminism is not to blame. These discriminatory practices—though not limited to the playground, surely—aren’t exactly systemic and hierarchical. Gender discrimination hasn’t pulled a 180 and fixed its leery gaze on males. For men, it might feel like women’s liberation turned on its head. Or gone a little too far. But trust me, it’s not the same as the destructive misogynistic practices that have constricted Western society for hundreds of years, and have only in the last half-century begun to be dismantled.
It probably goes both ways. Women have a legitimate right to be afraid for their kids, to want to protect them. But if men are so frequently viewed as a threat to children, it’s had a lot of help from the trope of the child-molesting playground lurker that’s perpetuated by cable news and TV crime dramas. Yes, kidnappings and molestations occur, and they are unbelievably tragic. But I’ll just go ahead and say what every guy is thinking at this point: not all men are pedophiles. Especially well-adjusted, loving fathers who devote the majority of their time to raising their kids while Mom is at work earning money.
Despite the apparent daddy bias, something can be done to reestablish trust in fathers. Not all the men went on the defense in Smith’s survey. Some even reported becoming more sensitive to other kinds of discrimination—racial, religious, etc. Smith reports that there were even some respondents who sought out other dads in their area to build communities of fathers. This is smart way to prove to skeptical moms that dads love their kids just as much—in a totally non-creepy way.
One father took the high road:
At some point, though, I realized being a full-time father was my role and that’s what my wife and kids needed more so than a paycheck. Once I reached this mindset, what other mothers thought of me didn’t matter anymore. I just did the best I could, and tried to be as charming as possible. In a way, it turned the tables because most of these mothers had insecurities of their own in their role.
I think that’s the best answer. Just do the best you can. Love your kid shamelessly, and don’t hold back. Reach out and build relationships. Be a big boy and rise above the playground squabbles—hard as it may be. The kids—and the country—will be better off for it.