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Father Shunning

A recent question made me ponder about the phenomenon of FATHER-SHUNNING.

A mother wrote:
My 14-month-old-son is terrified right now of my husband and really only wants to be with me. He is pretty whiney and clingy when he wants something and it’s hard on my husband because he doesn’t understand why the baby doesn’t want to be with him. My husband is encouraging me to let the baby cry for a bit when he is acting this way but my instincts tell me that is the wrong thing to do Your advice?

My answer:
This is a pretty common problem. And it is development-based. Your son is developing normally so he now has the ability to demonstrate two important skills: “object permanence” and “stranger anxiety.” Object permanence means that the baby recognizes that an object (you, for instance) exists even when out of sight. Stranger anxiety means the baby who is born programmed to recognize and stare at the human face realizes all faces are not alike, some belong to strangers. These skills start to develop around seven months and are firmly in place by 14 months.

Obviously your husband is not a stranger but I assume he spends less time with your son than you do. Your son has a consistent mental image of you. knows that when you disappear you come back again, and you are his main person. Probably one day he woke up from his nap and saw Daddy of whom his mental image is at this point less consistent so he acted afraid. This is actually maturity. It is very common. It is temporary.

But it can hurt Daddy’s feelings and interfere with Mommy getting some “time off” which is hard to do with a clingy baby. What to do? Both of you should try to not be upset by this. If baby cries when in Daddy’s arms take him back in your arms. All you have to say is, “I understand, you want me now.’ Baby may not understand your words but he understands that you get it: right now Daddy is scary. Let the baby see you and Daddy together a lot, close and cuddling, so he gets a consistent mental image of the family. Daddy should be right there when you are changing or feeding so his presence becomes more familiar. Wait a couple of days and try again to have Daddy pick him up. Try a little nudge: let Daddy bring the baby a new stuffed animal so the three of them can cuddle. By the way this pattern can quickly shift to baby preferring Daddy.

Most developmental behavioral quirks like this come on quickly and end quickly or rather go on to some new challenge for the parents to figure out. But they don’t change instantly so be patient.

It occurs to me that one of the reason I am getting so many letters about shunned fathers is related to the wonderful and family-healthy phenomenon of father participation. Even a generation ago fathers spent less time with their babies. Now fathers participate in birthing classes and labor, are no longer barred from the delivery room, change diapers, and spend much more time with the new member of the family than fathers did in the past.

Fathers want credit for this! I don’t blame them one bit; they are part of a major shift in society in which we see more mothers in the work force, more egalitarian marriages, more sharing of child care and household chores. And the children benefit the most as the mother-alone model of child-rearing was different from the way babies were cared for during the many millennia before the industrial revolution which separated the workplace and home. Babies need lots of loving adults to interact with so they can sort out those different faces and voices and ways of interaction.

Fathers need to understand this phenomenon of baby avoidance is developmentally-based (and proves how smart the baby is!), temporary, and nothing personal. Dads: keep in mind that your life-long relationship with the baby is just starting and both you and your child will benefit from your involvement with your children. Moms: help Dad get through this, he might need some extra “baby-ing” of his own during this troublesome time.