If you've recently become a parent or your bundle of joy will be arriving soon, or you're just interested as to how male and female parents are different, you'll find your answers here. There has long been speculation over if males or females are better at parenting. While there isn't a definitive answer, both genders have strong suits when it comes to parenting, both instinctual or just depending on the personality of the parent. Studies show that at eight weeks of age, infants can tell the difference between a male or female interacting with them. This diversity, in itself, provides children with a broader, richer experience of contrasting relational interactions—more so than for children who are raised by only one gender. Whether they realize it or not, children are learning at earliest age, by sheer experience, that men and women are different and have different ways of raising their children. Neither is necessarily better at parenting than the other; both genders have their own attributes.
1. Mothers and fathers play differently.
Learning how to play is an important factor in a child's development. It encourages them to see the world in a creative and different way than others see it, and this is presented in the article Why Children Need a Male and Female Parent by Glenn Stanton. While playing with their children, "fathers tend to play with, and mothers tend to care for," them (Stanton). While fathers encourage competition, mothers encourage equity. One style encourages independence while the other encourages security. Both provide security and confidence in their own ways by communicating love and physical intimacy. Either of these parenting styles by themselves can be unhealthy. One can "tend toward encouraging risk without consideration of consequences," while the other "tends to avoid risk, which can fail to build independence," as well as confidence and progress (Stanton). Joined together, they keep each other in balance and help children remain safe while expanding their experiences and confidence.
2. Both have different views on the world, and teach those views to their child in different ways.
While it's important to teach a child basic morals and views on the world, both parents do so differently. Father’s talk "tends to be more brief, direct, and to the point," and makes greater use of subtle body language (Stanton). They tend to see their child in relation to the rest of the world. Mothers tend to be "more descriptive, personal, and verbally encouraging," and tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their child (Stanton). Put together, these are both effective at shaping a well-rounded child, and even separately, these can have positive effects on a child's development.
3. Each parent teaches their child how to respect the opposite gender.
Along with teaching their children to be open-minded, parents teach respect to their children, but in slightly different ways. Girls and boys who grow up with a father are more familiar and secure with the world of men. Girls with involved, married fathers "are more likely to have healthier relationships with boys in adolescence and men in adulthood," because they learn from their fathers how proper men act toward women (Stanton). They also learn from their mothers how to live in a woman’s world. This knowledge "builds emotional security and safety from the exploitation of predatory males" (Stanton). Mothers help boys understand the female world and develop a sensitivity toward women, and also help boys know how to relate and communicate with women. It's a fact that "a married father is substantially less likely to abuse his wife or children" than men in any other category (Stanton). This means that boys and girls with married fathers in the home learn, by observation, how men should treat women. The American Journal of Sociology finds that, “societies with father-present patterns of child socialization produce men who are less inclined to exclude women from public activities than their counterparts in father-absent societies” (Coltrane). Girls and boys with married mothers learn from their mothers what a healthy, respectful female relationship with men looks like.
4. Something called "parental investment."
Parental investment, sometimes referred to as PI, is defined in its Wikipedia article as "any parental expenditure (time, energy etc.) that benefits one offspring at a cost to parents' ability to invest in other components of fitness," including the well-being of existing children, and the parents' future children (Wikipedia). It's suggested that parental investment starts from the point when the egg inside the female is fertilized. The minimal obligatory parental investment for a human male is the effort required to fertilize the egg. On the other hand, "the minimal obligatory parental investment for a human female is conception, nine months of pregnancy and delivery" (Wikipedia). In that case the female investment outweighs the male investment. The difference of minimal obligatory investment between males and females suggests that "the amount of investment and effort put into mating and parenting will also differ," so in theory, a human male could impregnate any woman who is fertile, leading to a large number of offspring from the male. In contrast, a human female can typically have only one offspring in nine months, limiting the amount of children she can have. This suggests that males should be more competitive between one another and females will be more selective because of the amount of investment, searching for the male with best fitness and good genes to pass on to her children.
5. And within that, sexual selection.
Sexual selection is an important part of parental investment. Females will not only choose males with good fitness and genes, they will search for those with high status and resources and those who indicate the interest to invest in the child after it’s born. For instance, "the alpha lion will usually be the one who breeds with most, if not all, of the female members of the group" (Wikipedia). Large amount of resources and territory may be attractive for females because it will secure a healthy environment for their offspring, indicating reproductive success. However, this also suggests that "there will be a greater variance of successful mating" in males than females (Wikipedia). In species where both sexes invest highly in parental care, mutual choiceness is expected to arise, and this is such with male and female humans.
6. Mens' brains will change once they become a parent.
It may not seem possible, but there's a study that shows this to be true. This was mentioned in the article In the Brain of the Father: Why Men can be Just as Good Primary Parents as Women, by Michael Brooks. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scanned the brains of parents while they watched videos of their interactions with their children. The researchers found that this stimulated activity in two systems of the brain: "one is an emotional network that deals with social bonding, ensures vigilance and co-ordinates responses to distress," providing chemical rewards for behaviors that maintain the child’s well-being (Brooks). The other network is concerned with mental processing. It monitors the child’s likely state of mind, emotional condition and future needs, allowing for planning. In mothers who are the primary caregivers, the emotional system was most active. Fathers who are secondary to a female caregiver were more engaged as thinkers and planners. But men raising a child without a female partner "were found to have the same level of emotional response as a mother," and the same thinking and planning response as the secondary father (Brooks). In other words, they are able to perform both roles. This shows that in the absence of a female caregiver, the brain of the man will instinctually take over and attempt to replace that role (even though nothing can replace a mother, of course).
7. Men will change their emotional responses based on how much time they spend with their child.
What’s more, for men in both primary and secondary roles, the relative size of the of emotional and thinking responses vary according to how much time they spend looking after the child. To give the child the best care, the brain changes depending on the circumstances. Brooks relays to the readers of his article about how neuroscience tells us that "children who are raised by two fathers experience the same caregiving environment as those raised by a mother and a father" (Brooks). This plasticity, or ability for the brain to adapt to new environments and situations it's placed in, is demonstrated widely and proves, again, that men can loosely take the place of women in a parental position, or at least do their best to.
8. The same hormones are released by mens' and womens' brains during the infant's childhood.
It's no secret that the brains of new mothers are bathed in a cocktail of hormones resulting from pregnancy and giving birth. Rebekah Morrow, athor of the article Do Women's Brains Make Them Better Parents? says that "one of these hormones, oxytocin, induces uterine contractions and lactation" (Morrow). Oxytocin is sometimes called the "bonding hormone," because it also influences feelings of trust and attachment (Morrow). However, mothers aren’t the only ones undergoing neural and hormonal changes. Fathers also experience a spike in oxytocin while they are interacting with their infants, in addition to a decrease in testosterone. Researchers speculate that these changes reinforce parenting behaviors. In rodents, exposure to infants stimulates production of neurons involved in recognizing their smell. This would explain why human mothers can identify their child by smell.
9. The brains of mothers and fathers operate in the same way.
In her article, Morrow also mentions a recent study by a group of Israeli scientists. The study examined the brain response to infant stimuli by measuring oxytocin levels and parenting behavior. Brain activity was assessed using a functional MRI. Three groups of first-time parents were enrolled in the study: heterosexual primary caregiving mothers, heterosexual secondary caregiving fathers, and homosexual primary caregiving fathers raising children without maternal involvement. The researchers found that different areas of the brain were activated in each of the parent groups. Mothers "used the emotional processing portion of their brains", while fathers "used the socio-cognitive circuits which are involved in social understanding" (Morrow). Mothers have highly activated amygdalas, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotions and memory modulation. Fathers show more activity in the cortical circuits of the temporo-parietal region, which is involved in processing information and reasoning. Primary caregiving fathers "showed higher amygdala activation, similar to primary caregiving mothers," and both groups of primary caregivers had greater parent-infant synchrony than secondary caregiving fathers (Morrow). The secondary caregiving fathers showed higher activation of the superior temporal sulcus (STS), an area of the brain used in the perception of other’s emotions. However, for both groups of fathers, the connectivity between the amygdala and the STS was directly linked to the amount of time spent in childcare. This shows that even with the absence of a mother, the child will still receive the correct emotional balance by its father or fathers, which is important for its long-term development and stable mental health.
What do these differences and similarities mean? Men and women do have differences in the ways their brain functions. However, this work shows that both men and women can be equally skilled caregivers. Furthermore, it reinforces what most people already know: the more time you spend doing something, the better you get at it.