Boston — Kyle Pruett has taken a very close look at something we've been catching glimpses of for a number of years now - the changing role of the father. He sought out and became well acquainted with 17 families in which the father had primary responsibility for raising young children while his wife went to work. His findings have been assembled in ``The Nurturing Father'' (Warner Books, $18.95).
Dr. Pruett, a clinical psychiatrist at Yale, proclaims that ``Fatherhood is changing at fastball speed, especially compared with the languid pace of social evolution.'' The fathers he came to know, certainly, are on the sharp edge of that change. No statistics exist on the subject, so it's anybody's guess just how many men are filling the child-care role traditionally filled by mothers, Pruett says.
A central question, to him, was how children are affected by the experience of having been cared for by a man during infancy and toddlerhood.
The answer, in essence, is that the children in his study seemed to be thriving. Pruett's sessions with the babies - including tests of their physical, intellectual, and social development - indicated well-adjusted offspring. As a group, in fact, the youngsters scored above average.
Equally intriguing to Pruett was the impact of the experience on the men. As he puts it, many had discovered something they didn't know they had - ``an innate ability to nurture'' - and this often changed their views on what was important in life. They became absorbed in the challenge of guiding their child's development.
What kind of men were these? By and large, they were mainstream Americans, blue collar to professional. Sometimes they had chosen to devote a few years to raising their kids; as often, loss of a job or lower earnings had left them little choice but to remain home with the children while their wives worked.
Do they represent only a tiny minority of households? That was Pruett's suspicion when he started the study, but he soon found that such arrangements were far from uncommon. He ended up with more names than his study could accommodate.
Pruett is well aware that some people view this trend with alarm, seeing in it a distortion of the ``natural'' roles of mother and father. But his philosophical position is that it's crucial for men, women, their families, and perhaps for society itself, that the nurturing instinct itself be nurtured in everyone.
He mentions, for example, the disturbing issue of child abuse. ``If a man is involved in the physical care of his child before the age of 3,'' said Pruett during a recent interview in Boston, ``that man is four to five times less likely to become a child abuser, either to his own or someone else's children.
``The nurturing instinct is a human instinct, not specifically the property of one or the other of the sexes,'' he added. ``Our society decides that it's more stable if women stay home and keep the fires burning ... the negative impact of this has been the burying of the nurturing instinct in men.''
That decision on the part of society, that assumption of woman's primacy in child-rearing, is being worn down by the social and economic realities of family life today, says Pruett. He talks of a ``historical shift'' currently under way which is bringing men into greater contact with their own children. It's ``multi-determined,'' he says, but among the obvious factors are the increasing numbers of women working outside the home and the softening of gender stereotypes because of the women's movement.
Pruett cites such evidence as the number of business school graduates now asking companies for such ``parenting'' related benefits as paternity leave and flexible work hours.
Behind these trends, says the researcher, lies a growing recognition among men that a closer relationship with children is nourishing to both child and adult. The old characterization of fathers as ``emotionally present but physically distant'' is fading, says Pruett. In the past, he continues, men often hadn't ``felt very fatherly, though they were doing all a father should do, keeping the wolf from the door.''
Pruett found that the men in his study had no ``role models'' among males they'd known. What most of these young men ended up asking themselves, he says, was not ``what would my wife do, but what would my mother do?''
Change in long-accepted family practices doesn't come easily, of course. In his book, Pruett examines friction between the generations - the parents and employers who can't understand a younger man's willingness to devote himself to his children rather than his career. And there's tension between the sexes on the subject. In his lecturing on the subject, Pruett has encountered some pretty stiff opposition from women to the idea that a man can fill the nurturing role traditionally assigned to mothers - and that opposition came from liberal northeasterners as well as Bible-belt southerners.
Still, Pruett not only sees the tide turning toward greater involvement of fathers with their newborn and very young children, but feels everything possible should be done to help this along. He argues for greater involvement of fathers at the time of birth, for paternity leave, for adoption by families in which the man is primary care-giver, and for the jettisoning of attitudes that ridicule or stigmatize men who are deeply interested in the care of small children.