Why Children Need Father-Love and Mother-Love

By: Glenn T. Stanton; ©2004
Fathers and mothers provide different and complementary ways of parenting. Studies have shown that both are important for children to develop healthy attitudes about themselves and about members of the opposite sex.


To be concerned with proper child development is to be concerned about making sure that children have daily access to the different and complementary ways mothers and fathers parent.

If Heather is being raised by two mommies and Brandon is being raised by Daddy and his new husband-roommate, Heather and Brandon might have two adults in their lives, but they are being deprived of the benefits found in the unique influences found in a mother and father’s differing parenting styles. Much of the value mothers and fathers bring to their children is due to the fact that mothers and fathers are different. And by cooperating together and complementing each other in their differences, they provide these good things that same-sex caregivers cannot. The important value of these gender-based differences in healthy child-development will be explored here.

The fathering difference is explained by fathering scholar Dr. Kyle Pruett of Yale Medical School in his book Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. Pruett says dads matter simply because “fathers do not mother.”[1] Psychology Today explains, “fatherhood turns out to be a complex and unique phenomenon with huge consequences for the emotional and intellectual growth of children.”[2] A father, as a male parent, brings unique contributions to the job of parenting that a mother cannot.

Likewise, a mother, as a female parent, uniquely impacts the life and development of her child, as Dr. Brenda Hunter explains in her book, The Power of Mother Love: Transforming Both Mother and Child.[3] Erik Erikson explained that father love and mother love are qualitatively different kinds of love. Fathers “love more dangerously” because their love is more “expectant, more instrumental” than a mother’s love.[4]

The following are some of the most compelling ways mother and father involvement make a positive difference in a child’s life. The first benefit is the difference itself.

“Children need mom’s softness as well as dad’s roughhousing.”

Mothers and Fathers Parent Differently

This difference provides an important diversity of experiences for children. Dr. Pruett explains that fathers have a distinct style of communication and interaction with children. Infants, by 8 weeks, can tell the difference between a male or female interacting with them. Stanford psychologist Eleanor Maccoby, in her book The Two Sexes, explains mothers and fathers respond differently to infants. Mothers are more likely to provide warm, nurturing care for a crying infant.[5] This diversity in itself provides children with a broader, richer experience of contrasting relational interactions—more so than for children who are raised by only one gender. Whether they realize it or not, children are learning at earliest age, by sheer experience, that men and women are different and have different ways of dealing with life, other adults and their children.

Mothers and Fathers Play Differently

Fathers tend to play with, and mothers tend to care for, children. While both mothers and fathers are physical, fathers are physical in different ways.

Fathers tickle more, they wrestle, and they throw their children in the air. Fathers chase their children, sometimes as playful, scary “monsters.” Fathers are louder at play, while mothers are quieter. Mothers cuddle babies, and fathers bounce them. Fathers roughhouse while mothers are gentle. One study found that 70 percent of father-infant games were more physical and action oriented while only 4 percent of mother-infant play was like this.[6] Fathers encourage competition; mothers encourage equity. One style encourages independence while the other encourages security.

This dynamic also exhibits itself in “gay” households. The USA Today featured an experimental parenting relationship of four gay adults, two homosexual men and two lesbian women. One of the women is the birth mom, while the men are the biological fathers of the children through artificial insemination.

One of the biological fathers believes the birth mother has a tendency to “pamper” the three-year-old boy “too much.” “When he falls down, she wants to rush over and make sure he is OK. I know he will be fine.”[7]

Fathering expert John Snarey explains that children who roughhouse with their fathers learn that biting, kicking and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable. They learn self-control by being told when “enough is enough” and when to “settle down.”[8] Girls and boys both learn a healthy balance between timidity and aggression. Children need mom’s softness as well as dad’s roughhousing. Both provide security and confidence in their own ways by communicating love and physical intimacy.

Fathers Push Limits; Mothers Encourage Security

Go to any playground and listen to the parents. Who is encouraging their kids to swing or climb just a little higher, ride their bike just a little faster, throw just a little harder? Who is yelling, “slow down, not so high, not so hard!” Of course, fathers encourage children to take chances and push limits and mothers protect and are more cautious. And this difference can cause disagreement between mom and dad on what is best for the child.

But the difference is essential for children. Either of these parenting styles by themselves can be unhealthy. One can tend toward encouraging risk without consideration of consequences. The other tends to avoid risk, which can fail to build independence, confidence and progress. Joined together, they keep each other in balance and help children remain safe while expanding their experiences and confidence.

Mothers and Fathers Communicate Differently

A major study showed that when speaking to children, mothers and fathers are different. Mothers will simplify their words and speak on the child’s level. Men are not as inclined to modify their language for the child.[9]

Mother’s way facilitates immediate communication. Father’s way challenges the child to expand her vocabulary and linguistic skills, an important building block of academic success.

Father’s talk tends to be more brief, directive, and to the point. It also makes greater use of subtle body language and facial expressions. Mothers tend to be more descriptive, personal and verbally encouraging. Children who do not have daily exposure to both will not learn how to understand and use both styles of conversation as they grow. These boys and girls will be at a disadvantage because they will experience these different ways of communicating in relationships with teachers, bosses and other authority figures.

Mothers and Fathers Discipline Differently

Educational psychologist Carol Gilligan tells us that fathers stress justice, fairness and duty (based on rules), while mothers stress sympathy, care and help (based on relationships). Fathers tend to observe and enforce rules systematically and sternly, which teach children the objectivity and consequences of right and wrong. Mothers tend toward grace and sympathy in the midst of disobedience, which provide a sense of hopefulness. Again, either of these by themselves is not good, but together, they create a healthy, proper balance.

Fathers and Mothers Prepare Children for Life Differently

Dads tend to see their child in relation to the rest of the world. Mothers tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their child. Think about it.

What motivates most mothers as parents? They are motivated primarily by things from the outside world that could hurt their child (i.e., lightning, accidents, disease, strange people, dogs or cats, etc.). Fathers, while not unconcerned with these things, tend to focus on how their children will or will not be prepared for something they might encounter in the world (i.e., a bully, being nervous around the opposite sex, baseball or soccer tryouts, etc.)

Fathers help children see that particular attitudes and behaviors have certain consequences. For instance, fathers are more likely to tell their children that if they are not nice to others, kids will not want to play with them. Or, if they don’t do well in school, they will not get into a good college or job. Fathers help children prepare for the reality and harshness of the real world, and mothers help protect against it. Both are necessary as children grow into adulthood.

“To be concerned with proper child development is to be concerned about making sure that children have daily access to the different and complimentary ways mothers and fathers parent.”

Fathers Provide A Look at the World of Men; Mothers, the World of Women

Men and women are different. They eat differently. They dress differently. They smell different. They groom themselves differently. They cope with life differently. Fathers do “man things” and women do “lady things.” Mothers and fathers both help little girls and little boys learn how to grow to be women and men. Anthropologist Suzanne Frayser explains this is constant in all human societies, “Each process complements the other. The boy can look at his father and see what he should do to be a male; he can look at his mother and see what he should not do to be a male.” Frayser continues, “The importance of contrasts in gender roles and specification of gender identity may be clues to the psychological importance of sexual differentiation in all societies.”[10]

Girls and boys who grow up with a father are more familiar and secure with the curious world of men. Girls with involved, married fathers are more likely to have healthier relationships with boys in adolescence and men in adulthood because they learn from their fathers how proper men act toward women. They also know which behaviors are inappropriate. They also have a healthy familiarity with the world of men. They don’t wonder how a man’s facial stubble feels or what it’s like to be hugged or held by strong arms. This knowledge builds emotional security, and safety from the exploitation of predatory males. They also learn from mom how to live in a woman’s world. This is especially important as they approach adolescence and all the changes that life-stage brings.

Boys who grow up with dads are much less likely to be violent. They have their masculinity affirmed and learn from their fathers how to channel their masculinity and strength in positive ways. Fathers help children understand proper male sexuality, hygiene, and behavior in age appropriate ways. Mothers help boys understand the female world and develop a sensitivity toward women. They also help boys know how to relate and communicate with women.

Fathers and Mothers Teach Respect for the Opposite Sex

FACT: A married father is substantially less likely to abuse his wife or children than men in any other category.[11] This means that boys and girls with fathers learn, by observation, how men should treat women.

Girls with involved fathers, therefore, are more likely to select for themselves good suitors and husbands because they have a proper standard by which to judge all candidates. Fathers themselves also help weed out bad candidates. Boys raised with fathers are more likely to be good husbands because they can emulate their fathers’ successes and learn from their failures.

The American Journal of Sociology finds that, “Societies with father-present patterns of child socialization produce men who are less inclined to exclude women from public activities than their counterparts in father-absent societies.”[12]

Girls and boys with married mothers learn from their mothers what a healthy respectful female relationship with men looks like. Girls who observe their mothers confidently and lovingly interacting with their fathers learn how to interact confidently with men.

Fathers Connect Children with Job Markets

A crucial point in life is the transition from financial dependence to independence. This is usually a slow process spanning the years from about 16 to 22 years of age. Fathers help connect their children, (especially boys) to job markets as they enter adulthood. This is because fathers, more than mothers, are likely to have the kinds of diverse community connections needed to help young adults get their first jobs. They are also more likely have the motivation to make sure their children make these connections. When dad is not around, boys are not likely to have the connections necessary to land a summer job at the tire store or warehouse.

As Dr. David Popenoe warns,

We should disavow the notion that ‘mommies can make good daddies,’ just as we should disavow the popular notion of radical feminists that ‘daddies can make good mommies.’ …The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary—culturally and biologically—for the optimal development of a human being.[13]


To be concerned with proper children development is to be concerned about making sure that children have daily access to the different and complementary ways mothers and fathers parent. The same-sex marriage and parenting proposition says this doesn’t really matter. They are wrong and their lack of understanding will hurt children. It will rob children of the necessary and different experiences mothers and fathers expose children to. As a result, children growing up in mother-only or father-only homes will suffer deeply in terms of lack of confidence, independence, and security. Boys and girls will be at greater risk for gender confusion, abuse and exploitation from other men. They are less likely to have a healthy respect for both women and men as they grow into adulthood.

Glenn T. Stanton is Director of Social Research and Cultural Affairs and Senior Analyst for Marriage and Sexuality at Focus on the Family. He is also author of Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society (Pinon Press).



  1. Kyle D. Pruett, Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, (New York: The Free Press, 2000), pp. 17-34.
  2. “Shuttle Diplomacy,” Psychology Today, July/August 1993, p. 15.
  3. Brenda Hunter, The Power of Mother Love: Transforming Both Mother and Child, (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1997).
  4. As cited in Kyle D. Pruett, The Nurturing Father, (New York: Warner Books, 1987), p. 49.
  5. Eleanor E. Maccoby, The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart; Coming Together, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 261.
  6. Maccoby, 1999, p. 266.
  7. Karen S. Peterson, The USA Today, “Looking straight at gay parents” (March 10, 2004).
  8. As cited in David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable of the Good of Children and Society, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 144.
  9. Maccoby, 1999, p. 269.
  10. Suzanne G. Frayser, Varieties of Sexual Experience: Anthropological Perspective on Human Seuxality, (New York: Human Relations Area File Press, 1985), p. 86.
  11. Jan Stets and Murray A. Strauss, “The Marriage License as a Hitting License: A Comparison of Assaults in Dating, Cohabiting, and Married Couples,” Journal of Family Violence 4 (1989): 161-180; Jan Stets, “Cohabiting and Marital Aggression: the Role of Social Isolation,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 669-680; Michael Gordon, “The Family Environment of Sexual Abuse: A Comparison of Natal and Stepfather Abuse,” Child Abuse and Neglect, 13 (1985): 121-130.
  12. Scott Coltrane, “Father-Child Relationships and the Status of Women: A Cross-Cultural Study,” American Journal of Sociology, (1988) 93:1088.
  13. David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable of the Good of Children and Society, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 197.

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