BOSTON — * The long list of double standards that vex society includes a gender bias that assumes a father is the parent to be trusted less.
When Eric Nichols, a professor of human development at the University of Vermont in Burlington, conducts public workshops on fathering, he offers advice to women: ``I say to mothers, `If you want your husband to father, then get out of the way and let him father.' For so long, women have been the primary parents that they find it difficult to let go and let men father. I call it `gatekeeping.' ''
``Let's say Mom has gone out for the evening,'' Dr. Nichols continues. ``What do we call what Dad does? Baby-sitting. Isn't it strange we use this term? We don't say mothers are baby-sitting. Then when Mom comes home, what kind of questions does she ask? `Did you feed them hot dogs again? Did they have a bath? Did they brush their teeth? Did you put them to bed on time?' If we multiply that situation time and time again, is it any wonder dads don't feel competent?''
To change attitudes in the long run, he says, ``We must start with young children.'' We need to provide young boys and adolescent boys with opportunities to care for children, he says, and to foster their nurturing instincts.
Doing that requires giving children positive images of men as nurturers. Neil Tift, co-founder of the Fathers' Resource Center in Minneapolis, wrote to five large publishers of children's books. ``We asked them to send us any books that encourage boys to see themselves as fathers someday,'' the same way some books encourage girls to be mothers. Four publishers wrote back that they didn't publish any such books. The fifth publisher never responded.
Mr. Tift points out another double standard: In the United States, a Girl Scout can get a service badge for child care. But Boy Scouts cannot earn such a merit badge. ``It's no longer appropriate to limit child-care skill development to girls,'' he says.
Who is delaying progress? ``I don't think either men or women are the bad guys in this,'' Nichols says. ``It's very scary for men and women to make role changes. Even though we say we'd like things to be different, when it really comes down to it, as men and women we cooperate to keep the status quo. We need to look at the ways we do that and keep working for change.''