Dr. Peggy Drexler: An Expert Dishes on Daddy’s Girls, Momma’s Boys & More

For Father’s Day, Dr. Peggy Drexler, author of Our Fathers, Ourselves and Raising Boys without Men, speaks to the role — and how it’s changing — men and dads play in our lives. The assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University is currently working on her next book about women.

The makeup of the traditional family has changed dramatically in the last decade. How has the role of “father” changed? (And does it always have to be a man?)

The mother-father-child household is hardly conventional anymore. For one thing, there are simply more mothers than there are fathers. Meanwhile, two-mother families are becoming if not commonplace, at least unremarkable. And, of course, there are other circumstances that may prevent kids from forming strong relationships with their fathers, including divorce, remarriage, illness, or occupational or financial need that may have Dad working long hours or in a different city, state, or even country. This just means that more mothers are fulfilling the role of “Dad.” But it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Studies show that children benefit—socially, emotionally, academically—from having a caring and involved father on site but that it’s very possible to raise exceptional, morally grounded children no matter what your family looks like.

How do male role models impact a boy’s life? And a girl’s life?

Does a child need a man around in order to have men to look up to? No. Kids can—and will—find their own role models. Sometimes they’re male. Sometimes they’re female. For boys, “boyishness” is both instinctual and entirely fluid. For girls, male role models may offer a different sort of path to develop into independent, open-minded, sensitive people. But it’s important to remember that father-daughter relationships and the father-son relationship are filled with many differing dynamics. It’s very individual.

How do men naturally parent differently from women? Or is this learned behavior?

Fathers are more likely to encourage their children to take risks and think for themselves and give them responsibility earlier on. A father’s approval and validation is also generally harder won. In my work, I also found that fathers generally encouraged children to be more curious about the world, either through a willingness to answer more questions or by proposing a different way of looking at it.

Are there benefits to men parenting differently from women?

Yes. Taking risks and learning to think for oneself is an important part of growing up. Children who learn how to take risks safely become adults who are willing to do so in business and in life, often to great result. The quest for a father’s validation is important: While both mothers and fathers can be and are role models for a child, children are more likely to model a will to succeed after seeing it in their father or receiving their father’s hard-won validation (or, conversely, after not feeling validated by him and striving, always, to feel it). The child may then go on to use this validation to do great things. A mother, meanwhile, needs less convincing that a child is amazing and special and unique. Mothers provide a sense of security that is essential and are often the ones who do a better job teaching their children to be empathetic and sensitive—though fathers can and do instill empathy, if in a different way.

Should men treat their daughters and sons the same way?

Yes, in so much as gender is concerned. I think there’s an argument to parent in a non-sexist way but it’s even more important to parent in a way that recognizes each child is different, regardless of gender, with different strengths, weaknesses, needs. Which means that daughters and sons should be treated equally in so much as parents should encourage in them the same values and instill in them the knowledge that they can be anything and anyone. I believe that by not insisting that your children acquiesce to standard gender roles or play with “gender-correct” toys, parents are better equipped to help them develop into more independent, open-minded, and sensitive people.

Is there a blueprint for a healthy father-child relationship?

A good rule for both single and double parent households: Accept your child for who he or she is, rather than trying to mold him or her into your vision of who you think he should be. By allowing your child his or her own space to move beyond you and establish his or her own sense of identity, you open him or her up to a world of possibilities and give him or her the chance to live up to his potential. Expand—rather than constrict—your child’s life by not imposing your own fears or limitations on him or her. That’s a healthy relationship.

Compare the mother-child relationship to the father-child relationship.

One challenge I’ve seen come up through my work with families is that often even the most involved fathers aren’t as physically present as daughters would like, and dads often aren’t in tune to see how this may affect their children. A report from a 13-nation team of psychologists revealed that daughters, in particular, may experience “rejection” from one parent, but most typically her father, in a far more dramatic way than she experiences similar rejection from the other parent. The parent with the power to reject is often the one she perceives as more powerful; that is, if a daughter perceives her father as having higher prestige than her mother, he may be the more influential in her life. In this way, science tells us that fatherly love and affection is critical to a daughter’s development and perception of her own value.

There are benefits, however, to this. Traditionally, fathers and daughters have struggled to regain the connection they shared when the girl was very young: the time of shoulder rides and tickle attacks. Idealized fathers live best in memory, and as daughters grew up, there was less and less to bond father and daughter beyond the love they had for each other. Today, though, fathers and daughters have much to talk about, worlds to share. Learning to hit a curve ball or make the smart career move—once largely the arena of fathers and sons—is now fully open to fathers and daughters.

How have the phrases “Daddy’s Girl” and “Momma’s Boy” changed?

We tend to think of “Daddy’s girls” as dependent and passively feminine. But more and more modern day daughters are learning from their fathers to be ambitious, educated, worldly, and in need of nobody’s protection. Women, for the first time, make up more than 50 percent of the American workforce. Dads play a key role in this shift. Dads who once might have defined their roles as helping daughters prepare to be good wives now see it as preparing them to make and manage money, compete for jobs, and handle relationships in a life that may or may not include a husband. They’re preparing their daughters to be independent, strong-willed, and tough.

The “Momma’s boy,” meanwhile, is something we strive for if it means raising boys to be sensitive, empathetic, and kind—but also strong, independent, and driven. The “sensitive son” is now a good thing. What’s more, we’re better at understanding that that boyishness can, and should, show up in many different ways, and better at telling boys that they can “do whatever they want to do” just as much as we’re inclined these days to tell our daughters. More mothers (and fathers), meanwhile, are raising sons to understand that feminism isn’t just something for the girls.

To learn more about Peggy, visit her website and follow her on: