In the evenings after work, Mike King can often be found crouched down on all fours in the living room playing bucking bronco with his kids. Squealing with excitement, 5-year-old Wyatt and 3-year-old Ella will claw their way onto his back and hang on for as long as they can while King mimics the movements of a rodeo bull. Once the kids have been bucked off, the game generally dissolves into a raucous bout of wrestling and tickling.
It’s a lot of fun for King and his children. But the 37-year-old truck driver suspects that beyond the roughhousing, they're also learning self-confidence and how to handle their young bodies as they wrestle, tumble and fall. It also helps them learn how to interact with others, to develop empathy and to rein in their aggression, says the Morgan Hill, Calif., dad.
“My son has learned he can’t play as rough with his little sister as he can be with me,” King says. “He’s learned how to calm himself down.”
As it turns out, King is right about dad-power. Over the past decade or so, researchers have begun to focus on the special role dads take in child-rearing. Their role extends far beyond rough-and-tumble play, experts say. Studies have shown that dads empower their kids, giving them the impetus to go out to explore the world, to meet new people and to take chances.
It’s not that moms never do that; it’s that dads do it more often, says Patrick Tolan, a professor at the Curry School at the University of Virginia and director of Youth-Nex: The University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Moms tend to develop a more empathetic and emotional relationship with their children, Tolan says. They also tend to be more supportive in play, allowing the child to take the lead. Dads tend to direct playtime and encourage their kids to take risks.
“Mothers help children feel connected, anticipated and wanted,” Tolan says. “Fathers teach them how to interact with others and how to control themselves when they feel their needs aren’t being met.”
A study published earlier this year in Early Child Development and Care shows the impact of those two approaches. Researchers from the Universite de Montreal School of Psychoeducation observed as moms and dads interacted with their toddlers while the kids, aged 12 to 18 months, were exposed to “risky” situations. In one experiment, a stranger came close. In another, toys were placed at the top of a flight of stairs.
The researchers noticed that the dads tended to follow their children at a greater distance than the moms and this seemed to encourage more exploration.
“We found that fathers are more inclined than mothers to activate exploratory behavior by being less protective,” says the study’s lead author, Daniel Paquette, a professor at the university.
“[Dads] respond to the child’s need to be encouraged, to overcome limits, and to learn to take risks in contexts in which they are confident of being protected from potential dangers.”
‘If you take a little risk, there will be rewards’
That makes sense to Stuart Maeshiro, since he’s the one who leads his family on all their adventures. He’ll be standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon pointing out the sights below, while his wife, Carie, is happy to look from several feet away.
Maeshiro, of Scottsdale, Ariz., remembers a recent hike down a steep trail. In the middle of the hike, dark clouds rolled in and even after the rain started to pelt down on them, Maeshiro encouraged his kids to keep on so they could see the sights below.
“It got muddy and I didn’t know whether we’d get stuck, but the kids learned a lot of stuff from our little adventure,” says Maeshiro, 45. “They learned that you don’t panic when things go wrong and that we can find a way to fix most problems. There’s a life lesson there: if you take a little risk, there will be rewards.”
The impact of the dad-effect may reach far beyond childhood, experts say.
“There are now studies showing that this so-called rough and tumble play supports healthy exploration later on in life,” says William Pollack, an associate clinical professor at the Harvard Medical School and head of the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital. “People used to worry that it might increase aggression in boys, but there’s plenty of data out there to show that it can lead them to be more empathetic.”
Other recent studies have shown that dads have a more powerful influence than moms when it comes to convincing kids to steer clear of cigarettes and sex.
The influence of dad may be more subtle than that of mom, but it’s certainly as strong in its own way. The Maeshiro kids, Garrett, 12, and Tara, 9, feel they’ve gotten something invaluable from their dad. He’s helped them develop a sense of adventure.
“I learned you should try things even when you’re scared,” says Tara. “When I get scared, my dad tells me not to worry, that you can’t predict what’s going to happen. So I try them and sometimes it feels scary, but fun at the same time.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.