'Gender Wars': Men and women on parenting

In the fifth and final installment of a special “Today” series called "Gender Wars," we tackle parenting. Raising children is one of the most rewarding jobs there is, but it's also one of the most difficult, and one where techniques can vary widely, especially amongst moms and dads. To get some insights, the “Today” show asked Steven Rhoads, professor of public policy at the University of Virginia and author of, "Taking Sex Differences Seriously," and Aleta Koman, family counselor and author of "The Parenting Survival Kit: How to Make it Through the Parenting Years with Your Family, Sanity and Wallet Intact," to weigh in on the subject. Here are their thoughts:


Rhoads' parenting pet peeves:

Fathers tend to think that mothers worry too much about the children.

Guilty mothers always think they could be and thus should be doing more with their kids. And moms, since they are worriers and parent with more intensity, are taskmasters with husbands about what needs doing and how it should be done. They tend to make dad into an assistant mom. In two-career families, this makes dad less than half in the grand scheme of things — he is only half a provider and less than half a parent. Fathers have their own style, which has its own virtues. On the playground jungle gym, worrying moms are more likely to say, "Watch out! Don't go too high." Dads are more likely to say, "See how high you can get."

Fathers frequently feel neglected by their wives who they think put their relationship with the kids ahead of their relationship with their husbands.

From the point of view of dads, moms — especially those with full-time careers — seem too tired and too consumed with the minutia of childcare and child development to be available for sex or much else with them.

Dads frequently think moms are too soft, for example, in comforting an older child who cries excessively when he falls down. But dads think this a larger problem as the kids get older and especially with teenage boys.

It's hard for a mom, used to being a nurturer, to become a disciplinarian, especially with a surly teenager who is now taller and looms over them. Mothers, loaded with estrogen and oxytocin, tend to be peacemakers. When dads try to discipline sons, the mother can be tempted to try to be a mediator rather than support the father. This can infuriate her husband.


In two-career families where parents try hard to share childcare equally, husbands often push for more paid care so that they have fewer hours during which they are obliged to care for children. Mothers get angry and insist that they do it themselves.

Steven Rhoads

Differences in parenting:

Understanding sex differences can bring a ceasefire in the gender wars. Once we can see that our romantic partners are fundamentally different on the inside as well as out, we will be less likely to expect them to be like all our same-sex friends. Husbands, for example, will see that women in general — not just "their crazy wife" — like to talk about problems that have no solution, and wives will see that most husbands — not just theirs — don't care about the messes they leave in their wake and often don't see them.

Mothers are worriers.

They are, for example, lighter sleepers when they have their baby in the house. Fathers are less likely to hear a cry at night and more likely to be annoyed than concerned by it if they do.

The differences in parenting intensity are greatest with infants and toddlers.

Even in families where fathers take leave and express a desire to be the primary caretakers of their new infants, the traditional parenting differences emerge. For example, the mothers display affectionate behavior, vocalize, smile, tend, hold, discipline and soothe the infant more than the fathers do.

Mothers are world-class nurturers of infants and toddlers, and they like to do every part of the care more.

This includes comforting, caring for the child when sick, buying food or toys, even changing diapers. Even women academics with egalitarian gender attitudes like all parts of care more than their husbands.

Infants and toddlers prefer moms to dads for every task as well.

There is a big preference for moms to do the comforting, but an infant even likes to play more with mom, who is more attentive to all its utterances, eye signals and the like.

Two common arguments between mothers and fathers about how they should parent:

Mothers and fathers quarrel when dad is not doing enough to help with the kids — both because moms need some time off and because moms think dads should spend more time with their children.

But moms also quarrel when they have full-time jobs and do not get enough time with their children. In two-career families where parents try hard to share childcare equally, husbands often push for more paid care so that they have fewer hours during which they are obliged to care for children. Mothers get angry and insist that they do it themselves. Fathers and mothers in such families acknowledge that wives are more emotionally involved with the children and find it harder to concentrate on other tasks when away from them. All in all, since mothers want to spend more time with their children, equal time by mothers and fathers in parenting, on the one hand, and work, on the other, is unlikely to bring them equal happiness. 

Sometimes mothers worry that by rough-housing and play-fighting dads may be over-stimulating their boys and making them more aggressive.

But, in fact, this type of rough play teaches not aggression but self-control and limits. Fathers teach boys not to bite and kick in rough play. The children whose aggressive behavior is out of control are those without fathers at home; these kids are unpopular with peers because they respond in a truly aggressive manner when other boys try to initiate rough-and-tumble play.


Koman's parenting pet peeves:

  • Men feel that women are overprotective and over-involved at times.

    They feel women should be stronger disciplinarians and not coddle kids so much.
  • Men feel that women nag, and complain that they don't listen and don't get it, and that they totally check out when it comes to the chores of everyday parenting.

    In response to that they want women to lighten up and not be so perfectionistic. They also would like them to be more accepting and more supportive of their fathering style, less controlling and less critical.
  • Men tend to be too permissive or over-authoritative, and too strict.  Men feel that women are more uptight and less playful.

    The believe women are more concerned with the daily activities of parenting and not as tuned into the moment.
  • Women resent both working outside the home and still having the full responsibility for planning, scheduling, and doing everything for their child's daily care.

    Women are much better at multi-tasking and men seem to get over-involved with one activity to the exclusion of feeding, clothing, and picking up after the kids. Women tend to be more authoritative (flexible) in parenting style and more emotionally responsive. Men seem to be more playful and less tuned in. They tend to be polarized in their parenting style — either permissive or authoritarian. Women want men to be mature adults and an equal co-parent that they can count on not just a playmate for their child.

Differences in parenting:

Despite a huge variety of human beings, there are four fundamental parenting styles: flexible, inflexible, permissive and disengaged. Any parent may manifest a combination of these styles; however one style may predominate. Stereotypically, women are more permissive and authoritative, while men are more authoritarian.

Communication between spouses:

Most marital problems stem directly or indirectly from difficulties in communication. This issue is immediately a big and complex task. Some loving couples struggle with it, and despite their best intentions, fail. Underlying many marital anxieties and tensions is one or both spouses believe they aren't getting enough time or attention from the other.

A better way to work communication between spouses:

  • Identify your anger and frustrations.
  • Learn to fight fairly.
  • Choose your battles carefully.
  • Tackle problems promptly.
  • Model healthy relationships.

Dos and don'ts of communication with your spouse:

  • Do level with your spouse in a calm cool manner.
  • Don't try to communicate when you're tired, stressed.
  • Do find a quiet peaceful moment to talk.
  • Don't use unfair fighting tactics such as accusing, blaming, etc.
  • Do stick to core problems.
  • Do focus on issues, not on who's at fault.
  • Don't try to accept all the blame.
  • Do empathize with your partner's feelings of anger and resentment.
  • Do look at both sides of the issues you're facing.

Parenting as partners:

  • Parents have to stay tuned into each other and have open communication.
  • Parenting conflict stresses the kids.
  • Parental conflict stresses your marriage.
  • Children lean to manipulate parents. If parents don't side together the kids will definitely figure out how to play one parent over the next. It's the classic kids, "Daddy said I could do this," line.

How to resolve parental conflict? Identify common ground and obvious differences:

  • What does family mean to you?
  • How can you find time for each child?
  • What are your beliefs about discipline?
  • What about a child's social life?
  • Education?
  • What lifestyle do you feel is healthy for nurturing a family?
  • What would you like to achieve as a family?