Thursday, January 27, 2011

Parenting While Male: 74 Fathers Talk about Playground Discrimination

You’ve probably heard the phrase “driving while black,” which refers to a perception that black drivers are more likely to be stopped by cops. This was whispered in the African-American community for years before it broke out into the wider cultural conversation and was gradually validated by empirical studies.

Similarly, stay-at-home dads have whispered for years about feeling unfairly targeted for "parenting while male," and recently their concerns have started to get mainstream attention. In last week's Wall Street Journal, Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy explored what happens when “when almost any man who has anything to do with a child can find himself suspected of being a creep.”

I spotted the column in a tweet from the redoubtable DadLabs. I replied: “I was once asked to leave a playground by a grandmother. I wonder how many guys have had that experience?” DadLabs tweeted back: “Most? Or faced playdate discrimination of one kind or another? #dadsnotpervs.”

This little twitter exchange echoes less-public discussion I’ve heard many times at gatherings of fathers: that they are often made to feel like outsiders at parks, playgrounds, and situations where most of the other parents are moms or grandmoms—and that their participation in playgroups or classes is sometimes rejected.

Atrocity stories circulate, but how widespread are actual "parenting while male" experiences, really? To start to get the answer, on Monday I created this survey, which as of this morning had been taken by 74 guys—60 percent of whom spend 31 or more hours a week taking care of a child. Here are the results so far:

  • Three men—4.5% of the participants who answered this question—said that they had been asked to leave a playground by a caregiver.
  • Twenty-four percent said that they had been refused entry to a gathering of parents and children.

  • Fifty-five percent said that their parenting skills had been criticized or corrected in a public setting.
  • Fifty-eight percent of participants felt that this criticism or exclusion occurred on the grounds that they are male.
  • Twenty-eight percent of participants reported that they had experienced these incidents on five or more occasions.

At the end of the survey, I asked how experiences of criticism or exclusion shaped their attitudes and behavior. Many reported feeling hurt or resentful, but then getting over it and moving forward with their lives:
"At first I was a little indignant. As someone who was forced into being the primary caregiver role, my confidence was already shot from losing my job, and so to have other mothers correcting me or looking at me crossways was an extra gut-punch. At some point, though, I realized being a full-time father was my role and that's what my wife and kids needed more so than a paycheck. Once I reached this mindset, what other mothers thought of me didn't matter any more. I just did the best I could, and tried to be as charming as possible. In a way, it turned the tables because most of these mothers had insecurities of their own in their role, and to come across a dad who seemed to be handling full-time parenting just fine, I think made them feel threatened.”

“In our neighborhood, people occasionally offering my wife and I unsequestered (and unwanted) advise [sic] pertaining to parenting. It generally annoys or perplexes me, but I don't believe that it has changed my behavior or attitudes, except to wonder about cultural differences to parenting and advise giving.”
However, a majority reported permanent changes in their day-to-day behavior and feelings as caregivers:
“I am very reluctant to put myself out there to groups of moms with their kids. I often let my sons go and play with kids at the park and I will stand on the periphery as the other moms talk. I often feel excluded and thus am more reserved.”

“It certainly made me feel excluded, possibly looked-down-upon. The strange thing was that each time such criticism or behavior was couched in such a way that it excused itself. 'Of course, it's better for the children for a mother to do these things' was one comment I remember, delivered with a short, self-conscious, judgmental laugh. As though it were self-evident that I wasn't the best choice to take care of my daughters.”

“I currently tend to be more on guard, and intervene between my child and another child in a public setting. This is due to twice where an unknown parent in a public playground setting has confronted me as a parent on my child's play being unsafe or rough.”

“I avoided events/organized activities that were dominated by stay at home moms.”

“Makes me instantly defensive, so after the first incident or two, even if the comments weren't made because I was male, I probably assumed the worst and reacted as if they were.”
Some participants did not did not hear outright comments, but modified their behavior based on ambient fears about men on playgrounds:
“I was playing t-ball with my son and a couple of other toddlers on the playground and my own wife (who arrived after I'd been there for an hour or so) pointed out that I should be careful about touching the other kids when helping them hit the ball. That surprised me, as it hadn't previously occurred to me that anybody would think it was an issue. Now I am much more self-conscious about it and try to remember to ask parents' permission in similar situations. Which is annoying.”
“I don't think I've ever been excluded from a play situation as a dad. I have had odd experiences - the mist [sic] salient here us that I've had young children who were strangers to me approach me at the playground and climb into my lab. That made me distinctly uncomfortable - I actually went and found the mom and told her about it, both to give her a heads up as to what her kid was doing with men she didn't know and also to protect myself.”
It’s important to emphasize that a minority of respondents did not report any kind of overt discriminatory behavior:
“After 14 years of being a father, 11 of them as primary caregiver, I have never been asked to leave a setting nor been criticized. While I may have been ignored by the moms a few times, that is not the norm.”

“I have never felt excluded from a playground or other public setting, nor a playgroup. All group activities related to my childrens [sic] school and peer group have been supportive of involved fathers. I have received a couple of comments about parenting choices - one was probably not without reason (I was distracting my toddler with a bottle of eyedrops and got ‘It's medicine, not a toy.’) but I found the delivery and attitude to be rude. I have never felt that the comments were made with an ‘incompetent dad’ attitude, but were specific to the action that was being criticized.”
A few respondents felt that the discrimination had a basis in reality:
“No change - I understand that women may not feel comfortable with a 'random guy' at the playgroup. It sucks, but I wasn't doing anything wrong so I didn't feel like changing. Plus, it's a little hard changing being a guy.”

“Nobody wants unattached, creepy dudes hanging around playgrounds.”
For others, discrimination provoked them to try to build a community of fathers:
“I've never been explicitly excluded because I was a male. Criticism based on my gender only prompted me to write about being a SAHD and to make connections and build community with other like-minded parents.”

“I am very confident in the way that I parent, so I was not affected by nannies questioning my skills. Men are specifically excluded from the local mothers' group, so it wasn't personal. I did work with a friend to start a dads' group in our city.”
There was another type of response: some dads used the experience as a way to understand the experiences of others. As one guy put it, “It made me sympathetic for the bias that others feel from white men.” Nearly all of the respondents identified themselves as “white” (obviously a limitation of this survey; I plan to do something later that casts a wider net) and so I think it’s fair to say that in many cases these men were experiencing social discrimination for the first time in their lives.

I have many thoughts about the context and how to interpret these results, but first I'd like to have a discussion. Please share your reactions, thoughts, and experiences in the comments, and invite others to join the conversation through your own blogs and social media.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Have You Ever Been Kicked Out of a Playground?

In this week's Wall Street Journal, Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy explores what happens when all men are treated like predators.

This got me to thinking: Exactly how many guys have had the experience of being excluded from gatherings of children and parents? To get the answer, I created this survey, which I hope you will take and pass on to other male caregivers. I'll report the results here on Daddy Dialectic.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Failing to access my inner Tiger Mother

By the time you read this, the outrage caused by Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal essay, entitled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," will have mostly died down. A lot of people will read her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (#4 on Amazon's bestseller list at the time of this writing); but those who don't will remember her only as the crazy bitch who calls her straight-A, musically prodigious daughters "garbage," and violates a dozen articles of the Geneva Convention while overseeing their piano practice--all in the name of helping them achieve their potential.

And sadly, many who read the WSJ essay, or even just scan a few of the bazillion blog rants and Twitter freakouts it inspired, may have forever etched in their minds the stereotype of the hardcore Asian Mama who shuns affection always, and breathes the fire of shame when her kid gets an A-minus, despite Chua's subsequent backpedaling regarding her overstated claims and bombastic tone in the essay.

I'll probably never read the book (unless somebody wants me to review it, or gives me a copy when I'm caught up on all the other stuff I want to read or...who am I kidding?--I'll never read it), but I'll take her at her word that the voice of her essay represented her earlier, more confident attitude about her draconian parenting style, before her younger daughter's rebellion caused her to lighten up a bit. She also explains in the essay and elsewhere that she uses the phrase "Chinese Parent" as shorthand for the tough-as-nails mentality any number of immigrants adopt as they strive to prove their mettle in their new country.

By the time Chua has responded to her critics, it seems that her argument is less that oppressive, coercive, "Chinese"-style parenting produces exceptional adults, and more that high expectations and an unrelenting work ethic of the kind embraced by immigrant populations, when built on a foundation of love and understanding, may contribute to success for some children. But that kind of talk isn't going to sell many books, is it?

Even before hearing Chua qualify her claims and soften her tone, however, I wasn't outraged by her essay.

My wife, whose family immigrated from Vietnam when she was a toddler, grew up in a household that was in many ways similar to Chua's, the major exception being that my wife's family arrived empty-handed, with no idea of how to navigate the labyrinth that led to success in the U.S. Her father worked nonstop, and her mother didn't speak enough English or have enough education to help the kids with their schoolwork or music practice the way Chua's parents (and of course Chua herself) did. My wife went to kindergarten knowing only the English she had picked up from Sesame Street.

But her parents' demands were much the same as Chua's: excellence in school, success in every endeavor, and unquestioning obedience. And the prohibitions on sleepovers, playdates, inessential extracurricular activities, dating while in high school (and in my wife's case, in college* and med school as well) were in place too. The language of shame was also deployed with gusto whenever any minor transgressions occurred, and they peppered their admonitions with hyperbolic threats (e.g. "I'll beat you until you die") that, although my wife and her five younger siblings never really felt that they were in harm's way, certainly added emphasis.

While my wife wishes she had been allowed to do a lot of things her peers were when she was a kid (attend sex ed, for instance), she doesn't seem to resent her parents any more than the average person does. In fact, we often lament the abolition of shame as a guiding principle in our society as we gripe about my entitled students and her entitled teenage patients who snap their gum and shrug when she asks how they expect to support their babies.

Our kids, we say, will never be like that.


The three principle differences between "Chinese" and "Western" parenting, as laid out by Chua, seem as fair as such broad generalizations can be, despite some overstatement and anecdotes of borderline child abuse as illustrations. First, Chua claims, Western parents don't push their children hard enough because they worry about their self-esteem; whereas Chinese parents "assume strength rather than frailty," and parent accordingly. Second, Chinese parents operate from the assumption that "children owe the parents everything," while the opposite is the case for Western parents. Finally, according to Chua, whereas Western parents indulge their children and give them the freedom to make stupid decisions, Chinese parents "believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences."

My wife and I agree that Chua is largely correct in this assessment of cultural differences in a very general way, and that children and society in general may well benefit more from the "Chinese" way than the "Western" way. In theory.

But as tough as we talk about what's wrong with kids these days, and how most people could use a good dose of shame, I just can't see us as anything close to "Tiger Parents." It will take all the willpower we can muster, in fact, to be anything tougher than "Free To Be You And Me" parents. Like many Westerners, we're enchanted by our babies, and can't stomach the idea of withholding affection from them, even if it was in their best interest. Chua might say that this attitude is indulgent, not only of the children, but of the parents. That a parent who cares about the long-term happiness of their child would sacrifice the pleasure of a comfortable relationship during childhood in the interest of shaping a confident and productive adult. I hope we will be able to teach our kids responsibility, humility, and respect without having to resort to threats. But I think that empathy and compassion are equally important traits in successful adults, and I don't know of any other way to teach that except by example.

*Where we met and were Just Good Friends

Please come visit me at my personal blog, Beta Dad, where I post funnier stuff than this, as well as hella-cute pictures and videos, and sometimes epic DIY projects.

I also write for the group blogs DadCentric and Aiming Low.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Daughters and Sons; Sons and Daughters

Pip and Polly are the proud inheritors of Ava’s childhood collection of 1980s Cabbage Patch dolls, and last week they decided to take each doll in for a visit to the doctor. They do these visits periodically, designating one of the tables in our living room as an exam table and pulling out various utensils from the kitchen to serve as a stethoscope, an x-ray machine, etc. Pip usually takes the lead in this process, handing out roles to Polly and me and telling us what we should say at various points throughout the examination.

This time, Pip told me that I was to act as each doll’s parent and that I should bring them into the examination room and explain to them what will happen during their visit with the doctor. He then handed me the first doll – a girl with stringy blond hair who we’ve named Olivia – and led us into the living room. As I walked in and sat down on the couch with Olivia on my knee, I was thinking ahead to naptime and how I needed to get a lasagna made for dinner, put a load of laundry in the wash, clean up the dishes from breakfast and lunch, and do some writing for the week’s blog post during that time. After waiting in silence for a few seconds, Pip impatiently prompted me to start explaining to Olivia what he and Polly were going to do. Stuttering a bit to get my words out, I quickly said, “Um, Olivia, this is, um, Dr. Pip and Nurse Polly…”

Then I stopped, remembering as soon as the words had come out of my mouth that thirty-some years of enculturation create habits which are annoyingly hard to break.

Polly and Pip looked over at me in confusion. I took a breath, paused for a moment, and then made a correction: “I’m sorry Olivia, this is Dr. Pip and Dr. Polly.”


Taking care of Polly has brought me into direct and immediate contact with the mysterious world of women. While I thought I was ready for this, it turns out that, much like in rock climbing, there is a distinct difference between visualizing a route and executing the climb. From the ground it can be relatively easy to pick out the series of points one wants to hit, but up on the cliff, getting through those points is never that simple. With each move upward, new details emerge and new options appear, creating questions that challenge and complicate the previously established choices.

With Polly many of the daily questions are sartorial in nature. Dressing Pip each morning is relatively simple: I pull out of his drawer some variation of the same button-up shirt and khakis that I wear most days, throw on some athletic socks and tennis shoes, and run a brush through his hair. Polly’s wardrobe choices require a whole other set of considerations: Is today a dress day or a pants day? Do I put bloomers on if she’s wearing tights? Which pair of shoes is supposed to go with this outfit? How do I get these hair clips and hair bands in without her screaming in pain?

The questions take a more serious turn as intimations of sexuality appear: How short a dress am I willing to put on her? How low a top? Do I really want decals or words on the seat of her pants? What if they’re just flowers? And why do some people insist on putting halter tops on two-year-olds? Do girls become sex objects the moment they can stand on their own two feet?

Even more seriously, Polly’s presence in my life has made me hyper-aware of how many historical inequalities of power between men and women are still present in our lives. For example,

- In 2007, women in the United States earned an income that was only 80% of that received by men.1

- In 2008, only 35% of science and engineering positions in business or industry were held by women and only 15% of top-level managers were women.2

- Of the 535 seats in the 112th edition of the United States Congress, only 93 (17%) are held by women. 3

- 1 in 4 women will become a victim of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. 4

Every day I think about these statistics and contemplate what they mean for Polly’s future. I wonder how I might prepare her to face these realities and what I might do to help her overcome some of the obstacles that create them.

My first instinct in this regard was to avoid making her excessively feminine. Driven by the idea that being “too girly” leads people to dismiss a woman or treat her as weak and incapable, I hypothesized that by keeping the pink to a minimum, avoiding the plague of Disney princesses and fairies, and cultivating interests in trucks, sports, construction equipment, LEGOs, electronics, and other ‘boy’ topics, I could somehow make Polly immune to all the statistics. I imagined that as she grew up people would recognize that she was different, that she was better than all the other girls, and consequently they would not subject her to the same indignities that all the rest wind up suffering.

This hypothesis, of course, is ridiculous. Trying to essentially raise Polly as a boy is not the answer. For one thing, intentionally creating significant discord between what Polly understands about herself and what things are socially and culturally expected of her as a woman is unfair to her. This discord would only make things more difficult for Polly as she navigates through the world outside our door. For another achieving equality among men and women cannot be accomplished through the creation of sameness. Such attempts only instigate further oppressions by limiting everyone’s life to the simplest and most linear of existences.

In the face of this false choice between Polly being too girly and not being girly enough, I have come to two conclusions. The first is that the best thing we can do right now for Polly is to create within our household small interventions in the dominant patterns of the world beyond. My hope is that through these interventions she will eventually become aware that the inequalities of power between women and men in our society are not natural and unalterable properties and that this awareness will allow her to negotiate the inequalities she encounters with some sense of ironic separation between herself and her cultural position as a woman. As such, I don’t want to, for example, regularize the doctor = male, nurse = female equation in Pip and Polly’s role playing. This equation reproduces a relationship in which the highly paid man holds final decision-making power and the lesser paid woman is responsible for following his directions. I’d rather have them enact the other possible combinations: Pip and Polly as doctors, Pip as nurse and Polly as doctor, Pip and Polly as nurses. She will see plenty of the first combination during her real visits to the doctor.

The other conclusion I have come to is that such interventions may not be as important for Polly as they are for Pip. As Ava has brought to my attention repeatedly, it’s easy to think that addressing the patterns of gender inequality means altering how women operate in the world. But the reality is that the practices and habits of men drive the reproduction of these patterns. As beneficiaries of these inequalities, men bear greater power and responsibility for acknowledging and changing these patterns than is often recognized. For me living up to this responsibility means creating our interventions with Pip in mind as much as Polly. If Pip grows up sensitive to the historical practices of exclusion and obstruction that determine the unequal nature of the opportunities with which he and Polly are respectively presented in life, then perhaps he can further contribute to the type of cumulative cultural adjustment necessary to eliminate from our world the specter of the false choice and all the associated injustices that still haunt women today.


After my slip that morning, I spent the next hour or so making a point of talking to Dr. Pip and Dr. Polly as I brought each of the dolls out for their turn in the examining room. Much to my relief, Pip eventually began parroting this manner of address as well. In some respects it seems like such a little thing, but at the moment these little things are what we can do. One day Ava and I will be able to have those conversations with Polly and Pip where we will talk about history and statistics and the reproduction of inequalities. For now, though, we have to try and show them what could be possible and hope that through this showing they learn to imagine and work for what the world should be instead of accepting as good enough what the world has already been.

1 See this report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2 See this report from the National Science Foundation.
3 For the current list of women in the US Congress, look here.
4 See the Department of Justice’s webpage for the National Institute of Justice

Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?

Take a look at my blog at

There's a new post every Thursday.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Adopting Mei Mei: or, Waiting for Junior's Little Sister

Our family is about to expand. We are expecting a daughter, sometime in the middle of 2011. We can't provide a due date, because she is already alive, and when she was born, we were unaware of the event. But already, multiple lines of fate are converging across continents and oceans, the result of decisions made by dozens of people, many of whom we don't know. As a result, our family of three, and one orphaned Chinese girl, are falling like small steel bearings through a vertical maze, channeled through the chutes and tunnels of international bureaucracies, until we will come to rest this summer, blinking in silence and side by side, in a single room somewhere in China.

Whether it speaks to the strength or poverty of my imagination that I can envision the event as if it has already happened, I can't say. A fictional version of the first encounter plays itself automatically, over and over, on some inner screen of my thoughts. There were no such trailers running before my wedding, or even Junior's first day in the world. But these coming events I see quite concretely: There is banter in Mandarin between my Chinese father in law and the orphanage attendant. Junior's aunt, who is a physician, holds the little girl's medical paperwork in her lap, and silently observes the conditions of the facility. Junior, who will by then be half-way between 4 and 5, is hiding behind mama's leg, because he is shy, because he is tired from trans-Pacific travel, and perhaps because he is overwhelmed to be surrounded by people who look more like mama than daddy, and who talk like Grandpa talks, but all the time.

A little girl is brought in, around two years old, abandoned somewhere in the province by parents we will never meet. Their lives are blank spaces that will be filled with every newspaper story we will ever read about the rural upheaval, economic struggle, and domestic drama of modern China. Junior will sense how quickly and completely the adults have turned their attention toward this little girl, and will emerge from behind mama's leg. After fifteen or twenty minutes, he will attempt to communicate, maybe tease or jest with a smile. He'll speak in English at first -- although he can speak Mandarin -- because he thinks of himself as "an English person." He will see that this very important person, his mei mei, makes no response. The curious second language that lies scattered inside his head as casually as the troupe of stuffed animals that live among his blankets, will suddenly become instrumental and self-conscious as the most important bridge to his sister. And he will display all the shades of generous openness and shy retreat that we have seen with his friends, the same demanding claims on mama's attention, and the same mimicry of daddy's own first gestures of welcome and care for this new family member.

This is the point at which the film begins to stutter, and I am momentarily blinded by the whiteness of a blank screen, as the movie reel flaps in a slowing tempo of completion in the projection room. Antique metaphors for an antique man, whose imagination is here outstripped, and left flapping on its own spool.

Who will this child be? With what disposition will she greet the world? What will be the genetic projection of all the untold accidents and couplings of her anonymous pedigree? What will develop between this child and her new mother, who longs for a daughter with an intensity that still partially bewilders me? And what is in store for this father, who has grown into fatherhood with the comfortable familiarity of a man who can find the time of his own lost boyhood by watching Junior discover his own? How will being the father of a girl change the way he thinks of himself as a dad, and as a man? The cast of characters is about to expand, the narrative is set to grow in dynamism and complexity, and my skills as the chronicler of it all will need to be significantly upgraded, from the level of a neighborhood gossip columnist, to that of a Jane Austen or a Russian novelist, or perhaps the two of them combined.