When you embark on parenthood as a single-mom-by-choice—or as a lesbian couple—you often hear a rundown of things kids supposedly need, and can only get, from a father. Generally, the items on the list are sexist and assume women can’t do things typically designated for men—playing catch, giving piggyback rides, learning to build things and other such stereotypical Big Strong Man tasks. But what they all really boil down to are standard everyday activities that society seems to have decided only men can carry out. However, I read about a new one that really takes the cake: Apparently, men are better at reading to their kids.
A study released last month by Dr. Elisabeth Duursma from the Early Start Research Institute at the University of Wollogong in New South Wales, Australia, has found that poor language skills among kids could be linked to a lack of "stimulating home experiences" like drawing, puzzles and reading. But apparently this only holds true if mom is the one reading or helping with puzzles. Stay with me here. About a year ago, Duursma published related research with Harvard University that determined kids benefit more when dads read bedtime stories. And why is that, you ask? Oh, because dads generate more "imaginative discussions" and play a significant role in language development because of how they read to their kids. Duursma spent a year researching parents' reading habits with their kids and observed that younger kids, especially girls, seemed more "tuned in" when read to by their dads because reading is viewed as a more feminine activity, so the presence of a male makes it more "special."
Where do I even begin? I’m all for reading to kids. I love the promotion of literacy. I agree that reading is good for bonding, learning, expanding vocabulary, introducing ideas and enriching the imagination. However, women, Duursma suggests, are most likely to pose factual questions to their kids—for example: How many apples appear in this illustration? Is this because women are more likely to bake pies and pack school lunches? While men, on the other hand, may read about a ladder and then ask if his kid recalls the ladder he used to have on his truck.
Was this research conducted in 1950? Is the suggestion that men are not only better at using their imaginations, but also more adept at making associations? The ladder and apple examples are provided by Duursma, by the way, not me.
As a single mom and primary reader, am I unknowingly stunting my five-year-old daughter Anna's creative imagination? Are there men with ladders and trucks available to read to kids without dads at home? I co-parent now (with an artsy, quiet man who doesn't own power tools, for the record). Yes, we read to my daughter differently—we select different books, strike up different conversations, and see different results come of that. This—and note I have no team of Harvard researchers to back this claim—is because we are different people, with different interests (literary and otherwise). It has nothing to do with the fact that we are different genders.
I'm fully capable of posing “if that were you” type questions to her: Which pet would you pick? Which way would you have gone? Who would you have asked?
Five years in, I rarely, if ever, question my decision to go into parenting alone. I cannot for the life of me throw a baseball, and I wouldn’t even try. But I think it’s upwards of 97 percent likely that the person who teaches Anna this skill, if it happens, will be a woman. Now that I’ve got baseball covered, I guess I need to secure a Big Strong Man to take care of nightly bedtime stories?