My husband’s and my division of labor changes monthly and sometimes even weekly, based on our ever-shifting work schedules. In general, though, he gets the kids up, dressed and out the door, and I do the school pickup and dinner routine. The final stretch, that last half hour of bath time/kitchen cleanup/tooth-brushing/pajama wrangling, we generally split according to who feels like doing what. But it turns out that there’s one duty my husband should always take on, according to science, no less: the bedtime story.
Kids who are read to by Dad, according to a study by Harvard University researchers, have better-developed language skills than kids who were read to by just Mom. So if families have a choice—meaning the father is in the picture and present in the household—Dad should take on the nightly bedtime story.
Now while I’m glad that kids can reap a specific benefit from storytime with Dad, I’m mildly irked that it’s this child-rearing task—a task that, of all of the tasks one does with small kids, is one of the fun ones. Where’s the study that says that kids benefit when Dad is the one hunching over them clipping their little fingernails? Where’s the research that says that kids do better when dads crouch by the potty for an hour with a kid who’s only going to take a dump in his underpants five minutes later? When will a scientist say kids are happier when Dad is the one who sorts through their clothes every three months, rotates in new clothes and stores the old? Hmmm? Okay, never.
I kid, I kid. Children do, in fact, benefit when dads are involved in the nitty-gritty of child-rearing, from diaper changing to attending Parents’ Night at the junior high. And more dads are more involved these days, though the bulk of domestic duties still fall to moms.
So why exactly do kids get so much out of reading with Dad? Is it the sonorous voice? The scratchy beard? No. According to the Harvard research, the way dads read to kids is just different from the way moms read. Dr. Elisabeth Duursma, the lead author on the study, writes in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“When we looked more closely at what was happening during book reading interactions, we found that fathers used more abstract and complex language.
“When sharing a book with their child, they would often link events in the book to a child’s own experience. For example, when a ladder was discussed in the book, many fathers mentioned the last time they had used a ladder to climb up on the roof or use it for their work. Mothers did not do this. Mothers focused more on the details in the book and often asked children to label or count objects or identify colors.”
Dr. Duursma notes that dads interact with their kids differently than mothers and that those differences can be hugely beneficial—dads roughhousing with kids, for example, helps children sync physical action and mental concentration and helps them learn to regulate themselves. In our household, at least, it’s true that dad tends to be the “roughhouser” while mom is more of the “chill cuddler.”
Frankly, I’d bet that the benefit here comes not only from the reading but from the one-on-one attention from Dad. Moms still spend twice as much time as dads on childcare per week; they also clock almost double the hours on housework. Dads still spend more time working outside of the home than moms do.
This is all gradually changing, of course, and I imagine that both men and women are benefitting from less rigid gender roles, allowing them to pursue lives that feel authentic and satisfying. Reading a bedtime story to a child ranks right up there on the “authentic and satisfying” meter. It’s great to have science confirm what most families probably already know: Kids benefit from nurturing dads too.