Natasha Cabrera of the University of Maryland was featured in several media outlets this week because of her recent research on playing with toddlers. Apparently, mothers play with a different emotional tone than fathers and the outcome is pretty important.
Cabrera, who has been studying fatherhood for many years, looked at child’s play between the ages of 2 and 4, focusing on something she calls, “intrusive play.” Her example of intrusive play involved a child picking up a truck and the parent taking the truck away and saying, “Let’s play with this instead.” On the surface, my first reaction was, “Why would a parent try to control a child’s play?” but I continued to read.
Moms apparently have a more negative attitude when it comes to play. They don’t bring their smile to the romper room. They frown and appear unhappy. Dads on the other hand display more positive emotions during play. Even though they are often described as rough or aggressive, they are happy and smiling.
Cabrera found this difference in emotions is huge when it comes to the social skills of these children. The control factor seems to be steered by the emotion that accompanies it; when the parents are happy and smiling, the children are more social with others. When the parents are frowning and unhappy, the children are less social in the future.
Cabrera’s work is often accompanied by suggestions for future research. Like any good researcher, the next statement is often, “What we really need to know is…” which can drive future research. I want to know more about intrusive play. If we are playing with our children, why would we need to control which toy is being selected? Is this a function of income or economic status? Are parents exercising control over what they want to play with?
Either way, Cabrera’s research is important. And it caught the eye of a couple of television stations who featured stories about it. We need more focus on fatherhood play with children. It is a huge building block for healthy relationships among dads and kids. Motherhood play research is still featured 3 or 4 times as often as fathers playing with children.
All this just makes me want to find a truck and go play with my kids again. It’s really special.