reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda
Kyle Pruett, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale Medical
School, appears to be the New Haven university’s answer to
Harvard’s William Pollack, author of Real Boys and Real Boys’
Voices. Both are excellent writers whose books are accessible,
predominantly aligned with Everyman’s politics (though Pruett seems
less fearful of feminist backlash than Pollack), and handsomely
produced by major publishers.
Pollack concerns himself with how boys’ voices are not being heard
and their joyful rambunctiousness is being squelched. Pruett
paints on a broader canvas, both in his book and in his research,
in which he undertook the first study of the effect on kids’
development of having a father as primary caretaker. Fatherneed
succinctly, deftly surveys the entire landscape of modern day
fatherhood and yet comes up with enough original insights and
uncovers enough fresh facts to keep even the most battle-weary
gender war veteran enthralled.
Something is missing, Pruett notes, from many books on fatherhood.
They include fathers in the introduction and index and here and
there throughout the book but somehow never quite manage to grasp
the essence of healthy masculine parenting. Pruett, by contrast,
does this very, very well. His language delightfully exemplifies
his message, direct and masculine (while not female-unfriendly).
At one points he usefully reminds the reader not to expect to love
every minute of fatherhood, since “this is business.”
Fathers are not even mentioned, Pruett tells us, in half the
research on the relationship between family and child development,
but when we bother to look for the father’s impact, we find it. In
spades. Mothers have an important part to play because their
welcoming of his participation makes a huge difference in his
effectiveness as a father. Intriguingly, fathers come equipped,
despite adverse socialization, to respond to infants’ needs as
effectively and rapidly as mothers do. Children respond as well
(though differently) to fathers as to mothers.
Pruett is particularly good in discussing fathers’ developmental
importance. Dads are not-Mom, and help the child to separate from
the mother when the time comes for that major step. Fathers are
also not mothers, and Pruett provides a useful summary of the
benefits of the contrasts between the safety and nurturing of
mother care and the challenges and stimulation provided to the
child by father care. Dads support kids’ novelty-seeking behavior,
and help children learn to master frustration. Pruett reminds us
not to forget that as the kids grow, “This is increasingly your
Good fathering also improves children’s interactions with siblings.
Father’s presence helps a child to learn to form relationships with
both sexes. Fathers like to stretch their kids’ communication
skills in preparation for worldly dialog. I learned that it is the
closeness the child feels to Dad that is most predictably
associated with positive outcomes. Even an uninvolved Dad, if
present, is significantly better than no father. So gatekeepers,
whether they be the mothers or in many cases the dads themselves,
should stand aside and welcome fathers into their children’s lives.
Pruett tells a few nice stories, such as the cellist who played
Bach and Celtic gigs for his baby while still in the womb, and
discovered to his delight that the baby remembered the music upon
emerging into the world.
The author also supplies some checklists of advice, and they are
truly extraordinary in their crystallization of supremely helpful
fathering advice. For each developmental stage, he counsels dads
on four axes: preparing your skills, calendar, emotions, and
marriage. Later he distills to a few choice sentences a world of
wisdom about post-divorce behavior with kids, and again, about
adoption and once more, to single mothers on how to involve men
with their children.
Pruett provides a bunch of stereotype-busting information that I
hadn’t heard before. Single African-American dads actually stick
around MORE than others. Their absence from the home often does
not imply less paternal contact. Puerto Rican dads don’t fit the
concept of distancing, traditional authoritarianism. Despite the
fact that institutions like schools, hospitals, clinics, social
service agencies hinder their efforts to stay in touch with their
kids, most teen dads see their children at least every other day.
The flaws are few and far between. The section on special needs
kids was too short to deal adequately with the topic and should
have been omitted or expanded. I wanted to see some mention of how
a father can learn to deal with shame or disappointment in himself
and the disabled child. And surprisingly, I found a bit left to be
desired in the final section, in which Pruett says he is going to
let the kids talk but can’t seem to find enough children’s voices
to fill out the chapter.
If you know a man who is hoping to become a father or is already
one but may be missing something, a man who might esteem plain talk
from a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth type writer, this is the book
for him. And ultimately, it is a book for the rest of us, too.
Perhaps it is appropriate to end this review with the words of
Pruett’s most eloquent child commentator: “Mommy, what did you do
with my daddy? You KNOW I need a daddy or I can’t BE a child.”
J. Steven Svoboda is a performance artist, poet, and a human rights lawyer who is Executive Director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, which he founded in 1997.