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The ‘Tatay’ Box

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The ‘Tatay’ Box

The Man Box” is the title of a research report released last March, with the subtitle “A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico.”

The research used interviews and focused group discussions to look into how men aged 18-30 in the three countries viewed the seven pillars of “real” men: self-sufficiency, acting tough, physical attractiveness, rigid masculine gender roles around household and caregiving work, heterosexuality and homophobia, hypersexuality (“always ready for sex”), aggression and control.

I thought of writing about the Man Box report shortly after it was released, but it somehow got buried in my files. But it was resurrected after I read, a few days ago, a report on fathering in the June issue of Behavioral Neuroscience, a journal published by the American Psychological Association. The study was conducted by Jennifer Mascaro, a professor in family medicine, with colleagues from the University of Arizona and Emory University. The title is both intriguing and intimidating: “Child gender influences paternal behavior, language, and brain function.”

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By linking the two studies I’m hoping we can get our own researchers to do similar studies that can then be used to help improve our parenting, especially fathering, skills.

Mascaro and her colleagues found, from an intensive study of 69 fathers of children aged 1-2 years, that men talk and behave differently with their children depending on gender. When dealing with their sons, the fathers tended to engage in more rough-and-tumble play and used more achievement-oriented language (e.g., “proud,” “win,” “best”). With daughters, fathers tended to sing and whistle more, used more analytical language (words like “all,” “below,” “much”) and language related to sadness and to the body. Moreover, fathers tended to respond more often to their daughters’ crying out or calling out for dad.

More attention to daughters

Such research findings are not new but in this study, the researchers started out aware that interviewing fathers on their parenting style might result in the men giving answers that they thought researchers wanted. So the researchers decided to use digital recorders that the fathers wore for an entire weekday and an entire weekend day.

The researchers also used MRIs to scan the fathers’ responses to pictures of their children (their own and those of others). These scans found that fathers tended to have stronger brain responses when exposed to pictures of their daughters with happy faces, in areas of the brain responsible for rewards, visual processing and emotional regulation. Put another way, fathers were giving more attention to the photos of happy daughters’ faces.

The researchers warn against generalizing the study because it involved only a small sample of American fathers. Neither are they implying that men are biologically wired to behave the way they do and instead refer to social biases and unconscious notions of gender that make fathers treat their sons and daughters differently—that is, the fathers unconsciously believe sons and daughters have different needs (incorrect, according to scientific research in psychology and medicine).

The differences in the fathers’ responses might in turn influence the children, reinforcing, for example, boys’ drive or need to achieve. More frequent references to the body, when talking to daughters, might explain why girls are more conscious of body images, and might also have more problems with those images. Fathers being more open with emotions when talking to their daughters could help explain why girls have more empathy.

Let’s link those findings to the Man Box study, which was hopeful with findings that young men do grapple with the seven clusters of stereotyped expectations of men. In particular, they found that “young men in all three countries overwhelmingly reject notions of manhood that imply that men are superior to women or that men should not care for children.” The challenge is strongest when it comes to household chores, with more young men willing to share responsibilities.

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At the same time, that study showed continuing “strong support for toughness and the repression of emotions.” This finding can help explain the findings in the Mascaro study. The fact that men are even caring for their children is already reason to celebrate, but those of us who do so should be conscious of how our parenting will reflect our own gender norms, and the upbringing that taught us those norms.

Reading Mascaro’s study, I felt almost guilty because my son is always accusing me of being “softer” on my daughters, quicker to comfort them and more reluctant to scold them. We also know that, although it is not backed by formal research, in the Philippines there’s a strong tendency for the “papa’s girl/mama’s boy” dichotomy—fathers tending to spoil their daughters, and mothers their sons. (The mama’s boy here does not have the connotations of effeminacy as in the West; in fact, the Filipino mama’s boy is the spoiled macho, expecting women to be at his beck and call, as his mother was.)

Put another way, we’re tough with our sons because we want them to be prepared for a world that is “tougher” on men when it comes to expectations of achievement (thus the emphasis, in language, to be the best).

Tough and tender

The dual standards in our fathering has led to serious but paradoxical situations. We want our sons to achieve, yet dropout rates for males in Philippine public schools are much higher than for females. My interpretation is that if boys don’t do well, then—at least in low-income families—they’re simply pulled out and pushed into the workforce, not just so they can bring in some money but also to get them tough in the “real” world.

A recent Unicef-sponsored study in the Philippines also found that sons are victims of violence as often as daughters, and with greater degrees of physical battering. Again, this can be attributed to the idea that boys need to be tougher. And if they cry when being subjected to physical violence, they’re beaten even more harshly with an admonition: Ano ka ba, bakla? (Are you gay?) See how the Man Box pillars perversely reinforce each other: acting tough, heterosexuality and homophobia.

But on Father’s Day, let’s think out of the “Tatay” box and explore how, in our daily interactions at home, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters can reassure one another that it’s all right to express our emotions and to empathize without labels of “weak” and “strong.”

Dare we think of becoming better “Tatays” so our sons become even better ones, tough and tender?

(The Man Box study was sponsored by Promundo and Unilever and may be downloaded from promundoglobal.org. The other study is in a scientific journal and access is limited to university libraries and through subscription, but feature stories can be found in various newspapers’ online pages and on the American Psychological Association website.)

mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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