What is the difference between maternal instincts and paternal instincts?
There are two significant distinctions between maternal instincts and paternal instincts. First, fathers tend to use their bodies more when they interact with their young children. Fathers engage more in acts like tossing the baby in the air, tickling, rough-housing, wrestling, and engaging in sports and outdoor activities. That doesn't mean that moms don't care about physical activities. However, when moms interact with their young children (babies, toddlers, and preschoolers), they often use an object from their environments, such as a toy, a game, a book, a doll, or a puzzle. Dads, on the other hand, tend to use their bodies. This tendency of fathers to be more physical is seen across many different cultures.
The second distinction is that when fathers interact with their children, they are hardwired to prepare their children for the future. For example, the mother may use babbling or baby talk to speak to their child, whereas the father wants to encourage the child to use bigger words. This isn't necessarily a conscious decision, but he's pushing them a little bit to get them ready for their future. Another example of how dads prepare their children for the future is during game playing. If a mother is playing a game with their child, she will often let the child win. If the father is playing a game with their child, often the father doesn't let the child win. The paternal instinct is such that he is teaching his son or daughter to be a good loser, because if the child beats dad in a game, then they've actually accomplished something. This focus on the future is just hardwired in engaged fathers.
Another way fathers prepare their children for the future is by instilling impulse control. Healthy fathers are seen as role models to help their daughters and sons regulate their behavior, modeling how to stay calm, how to develop self-soothing skills, and inspiring a good work ethic. Even in families where both mom and dad work outside the home, and even in cases where the mother works more than the father, the children still tend to look more to dad for the work ethic. That work ethic in sons and daughters is often learned from the male in the household. Encouraging mature survival attitudes, fathers focus on the future, whereas moms focus on the present. This offers a great balance for that child to be able to learn from both parents.
This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, A Father's Place: The Importance of Male Involvement in Early Childhood Development, in partnership with Region 9 Head Start Association, by J. Neil Tift, BA, MA.