Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Kerry Colburn: Letting Dad Do His Thing

My friend Liza once told me that she gives her child all of his baths. Why? “Oh, his dad doesn’t know how to do it the way Jacob likes it – so it’s just easier this way.” Hmm. So, dad checks out with a beer and mom is on deck, night after night. And worse, Jacob and dad never learn to find their own way to a fun bath time, guy style. That’s a shame.

Who among us has made these sorts of comments to the dad of your house this week?

  • Not that binky, the other one!
  • You’re holding her the wrong way.
  • You’re bouncing him too much; he’ll throw up!
  • That’s not how she likes her pasta.
  • Are you taking her out in that?
  • Oh, never mind, I’ll just do it.

When does this micromanagement of dads begin? Perhaps in the newborn months, when mom is often the primary caregiver of what seems to be a very fragile little being. Hormones and worry combine to up the ante, and we can become convinced that we know not just the best way, but the only way, to care for our child. All understandable.

But keeping that pattern into toddlerhood, early childhood, and beyond is not the way to go. It can cause resentment and frustration, and in the end it only defeats the purpose of having dad do his share – and reap the rewards of time spent on his own with his child. After all, don’t we all want more engagement from our partners, and a child who doesn’t expect everything to be done exactly as mom would? Don’t we? Yet somehow, we can resist releasing that control.

“I was hosting friends and their baby, and the mom asked her husband to do the diaper change since we were in the middle of a conversation,” another friend recalls. “Then she followed him upstairs and checked on him anyway.” The irony? After lecturing him on how the diaper was on too tight, she had to eat crow when he explained that the diaper she was criticizing hadn’t even been changed yet – so it was the diaper that she put on that was supposedly unacceptable.

Listen up, moms: Let go a little. Give dad some freedom to do things his way. Bite your tongue and let him discover a new technique to swaddle the baby, get peas into your toddler’s mouth, or comb your kindergartener’s hair. Let him feel both the joy of success (shoes and socks on!) and the pain of defeat (she won’t nap!). You both deserve that – and so do your kids.

This doesn’t mean you can’t help out your spouse by explaining lessons you’ve learned by trial and error with your child- – something he maybe hasn’t had as much of if he’s been away more than you. But as with any unsolicited advice, there’s a wrong way (“Don’t just dump water on his head! He hates that! You’ll get soap in his eyes! Why is it so cold in here?”) and a right way. The wrong way can quickly become an excuse for a frustrated dad to give up and let mom do it. That isn’t a desirable result for anyone.

So, if your suggestion isn’t an immediate safety imperative, hold your comments. Later, if there’s something you truly think you can help with, wait for a good moment and finesse your delivery. If your spouse had a hard time doing the bath his way, for example, try phrasing your advice like this: “I really struggle getting Sally’s hair washed, too. It’s not easy. Do you know what I found has worked this week? I hold a toy really high over my head – then when she looks up I rinse her hair with my other hand.” My guess is that an approach like that will go over a lot better than bursting into the bathroom at the first sound of crying and demanding to know what’s going on.

Parenting is nothing if not an exercise in creativity and problem-solving, and it’s no fun if you make someone imitate your process step by step. (Does it really matter whether the pajamas come before or after the teeth, for example, as long as both steps happen? Probably not.)

But beyond that, it’s important to show the dad in your life that you not only trust him, but you admire his skills. Did he manage tickle your daughter out of a tantrum? Have a blast taking the kids to Home Depot in their PJs? Find a way to make cauliflower edible? Give him his props. He deserves it. Let dad sing different songs, soothe in his own way, and play games that would never cross your mind. Basically, let him be truly in charge sometimes, without your input. Repeat after me: This is what you want. You may even find that once you let yourself stand back a little, you learn some new tips and tricks to use yourself.