There’s no one way to parent, but challenging gendered parenting roles may allow you to connect with your kid more deeply.

Steven Rowe calming his kid by reading to itShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Mekhi Baldwin

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I’ve never seen my son as joyful as when he first spots us through the door at daycare pickup. He runs down the hall, full tilt with that frenetic could-topple-over-sideways-at-any-point energy that only a 2-year-old who has just mastered walking fast, but not quite running, can manage.

His teacher opens the door as he cheers “Mama-dada!” before charging right past me, slowing only briefly to notice me — like you would slow down in your car to read a sign being waved emotionlessly outside a mattress store; interesting but ultimately not worth stopping for — as he runs into his mom’s arms.

This used to bother me the first few times it happened. A lot. Because he ran around me, even when I was right in front of him, it felt intentional.

I was like your third favorite takeout restaurant: a good time if nothing else is available, but not what you were hoping for.

It wasn’t until my wife expressed some sadness that our son doesn’t think of her as “the fun parent” that I realized we’d both slipped into an unexpected parenting dynamic — she was the comforter, while I was the silly cartoon that was always good for a laugh.

It hurt me to see that he wasn’t as excited to see me or went to her when he was sad, but it hurt her when she would try to play with him and he’d wander off to find me.

And sometimes, we both wished we could switch roles when we felt snubbed by our toddler.

W had also, without intending to, let ourselves fall into gendered parenting stereotypes that are all too common in TV comedies — Mom is the one who comforts but ultimately has the serious role of enforcing rules and routines, while Dad is the fun one you laugh with and get into trouble with.

My son hadn’t taken his first step when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and for a while, my wife and I both tried to juggle parenting and remote work at the same time.

But then, in September 2020, I lost my job during a big wave of COVID-related layoffs, so I threw myself into full-time parenting and house cleaning.

I took on practically all the housework — laundry, dishes, cooking, etc. — since I was the one who had most of the time to do it.

It felt like my way to help out, especially since my wife, even though she was briefly laid off too, quickly found new full-time work that demanded her attention from 9 to 5.

The only problem was, my son didn’t understand why mom was “at work” upstairs and he was stuck with me downstairs.

And for the first few months, it was tough.

Even if he did begrudgingly accept my company, he would start crying every time he’d hear her voice when she was on a Zoom call.

And no matter how silly I tried to be, it wasn’t enough. I knew I needed to change my approach if I was ever going to be a comfort to him. I needed to be his support system, too.

I can pretty confidently say that I’ve tried everything to help my son calm down when he’s upset.

My wife has shown me sleek, well-edited videos of moms and dads sharing calming techniques, and I’ve tried every single one of them to no success.

I even tried the calm, reassuring hug and hold that’s supposed to help your toddler feel safe, secure, and reassured, but my little guy just screamed, wiggled out of my arms, dramatically threw himself backwards, and bonked his head before I could catch him.

And then he screamed even louder.

But what did work for me — and by no means am I saying it will work for you, but if you’re desperate like I was, give it a try — was during a particularly intense tantrum I sat him down next to me and started reading his favorite books. I gave the characters silly voices and made the book whoosh around the room to match the story on the page.

It’s humbling to give the best dramatic reading of your life to an audience of one who also happens to be screaming directly into your face.

But over the course of the second or third reading, he started to settle. By the fourth reading, he was grabbing the book to whoosh it around too, and he started to forget that he was so upset.

Looking back, I think the reason why my son would choose his mother as the comforter and me as the fun one was because I had let myself take on the fun role, while neglecting to take on the less fun, hard role of figuring out how to comfort him.

My wife has been screamed at plenty by our little guy, too, especially when I went back to work and she was still on maternity leave. But I hadn’t seen how it challenged her or how she managed it because I wasn’t home.

I just saw the “after” photo — the one where my son and wife had already figured out what worked and what didn’t work in terms of calming things down.

And it was only once I was forced to put in that work and try, try, try again that I figured out what worked for me.

“Parents often fall into ‘roles’ out of comfort and familiarity,” explains Nicholas Hardy, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Houston. “Their experiences growing up shaped their subconscious beliefs of what is acceptable, and as adults, they adopt similar patterns and mirror what they saw.”

In other words: I was falling into the goofball cartoon role because it felt familiar.

Societal norms, my own upbringing, and even the images I saw in the media made it seem like the “goofy” dad and “caring” mom were normal. And I hadn’t realized that these ideas were just as gendered as the housewife and “head-of-the-household” dad roles I’d thought I was avoiding.

But emotionally engaged dads are important to their children’s development, too.

“A portion of a child’s identity is found in [their] father,” Hardy says.

He explains that when a dad has an active and healthy relationship with his kids, those children grow up with higher self-esteem and a more positive identity.

“Our perception of the world is filtered through the lens of our earliest childhood memories,” he says. “When a child is exposed to a healthy father figure, they naturally have a more positive outlook on men and relationships.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that what works for one parent may not work for all of them.

But I do know that when I tried to be there for the good and the hard, my relationship improved with my son. So here are some things I try to remember in my journey to becoming a more involved dad:

You can’t predict what they will like

My son has several shows and characters that he likes, but nothing has resonated more with him than the “Cars” movies. I don’t really get it: I’ve never really liked it, and neither has my wife.

But that’s his thing that he picked out all by himself. And so, I’m here for it, even if that means watching the same movie over and over and over again.

Find your own way to connect

After I accepted that I wasn’t going to be the one he ran to first, I decided what I could be — his source of routine and learning.

So we’ve created a kitchen routine. Every day, we sit at the island and have a snack. He watches me make my “Caw-Fee,” I pour him a mug of water, and we sit down and enjoy our drinks together. Oftentimes, he even tries to sync up with me so that we take sips at the same time.

This is how I connect with my son and give him a routine.

I’m sure as he gets older, this time will evolve. Maybe it will be the time we reserve for him telling me about his day, his school troubles, or anything else on his mind.

But this routine — and the multiple others we’re working on — help my son realize that he can count on me to always be there. (And honestly, it’s the best part of my day.)

Give them time to build trust

Building trust takes time.

When I tell my son to “wait” for something, no matter how much he doesn’t like it, he knows to trust me and wait it out.

If I tell him he can have something but has to wait a bit, he repeats “wait!” and will actually wait for it without a tantrum.

That’s because I’ve really tried to keep my promises, and tried not lie to him or tell him to wait for something I don’t plan to give him.

Validate pain and tears even if you don’t think it’s valid

I had confessed to my wife that when my son falls down and cries, I get it, but when he got upset over something silly (like the dog eating his bread), I didn’t feel as bad.

Sometimes, I felt the urge to just dismiss his tears and tell him it wasn’t a big deal.

But later, I also realized that even if I didn’t understand why he was upset, I shouldn’t invalidate his feelings. He’s 2, after all, so some things always feel a lot bigger than they are at that age

So when he’s upset, I try to pause, ask him what’s wrong, and talk him through what’s upsetting him.

Sometimes all he needs is for me to listen. Sometimes he needs a hug. But every time I’m there for him, he learns that I can be a comfort too — just like my wife.

Raising children is always going to look different for every family because no two families are alike. Different backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews all inform how we raise our kids.

But what I can say is to find out what works for you and, if needed, take on some jobs that are outside your lane.

You may not have traditionally done certain jobs in the past, but adapting to changing circumstances is the best way to get you and your family through the challenging times.

Children observe everything their parents do, and they will certainly notice when and how you try to reach them.

Try taking the time to pause and connect with your kids in your own way, even if it’s just a few minutes — trust me, they will notice.

Steven Rowe is a New York-based writer and father. He has a degree in psychology, a master’s from Columbia School of the Arts, and he enjoys writing about mental health and childhood development. When he’s not writing, you can find him hiking in the woods with his family and rescue beagle.