Two four year old boys at the park head away from the group of parents to a small creek. They pick up sticks and start mock sword fighting, pretending to be Jedi knights. They are balancing on rocks in the little creek, trying to force each other to step off into the water.
Example a): Dad of one of the boys notices what they are doing and wanders over. He finds his own stick and joins in the game. Soon he is Anakin and the boys are jointly Obi Wan. They dance around on the rocks, but eventually the dad allows the boys to overpower him and he slides off his rock into the water, letting out a blood-curdling scream as he is consumed by the “lava” and completing the transformation to Darth Vadar. One of the boys slips on a rock and skins his knee. His lips wobble, but he looks up at his Dad and grits his teeth. “You OK?” Asks the dad. The boy nods. “Let’s wash that off in the water and then go back and get a bandaid,” suggests the dad. The boy nods again and slowly limps over.
Example b): Mum of one of the boys notices what they are doing and wanders over. She engages her son in conversation, mentioning that she doesn’t like it when they play “fighting games” and that the rocks look a bit slippery. She is worried that they might fall over and hurt themselves. She sits on one of the larger rocks and starts piling up smaller rocks, sticks, etc. across the creek, to make a small dam. She wonders aloud how much water she could back up in the stream and whether it would run dry. The boys are interested and come over to help make the dam. They create a sizeable pool of water, before the dam is finally overrun and the water escapes down the creek with a great rush and cheers from all concerned. One of the boys slips on a rock and skins his knee. He looks up at his mum and bursts into tears. The mum picks him up and hugs him tight. “I wanna go home,” cries the boy. The mum carries him back to the group and sits under the tree, cuddling him for 15 minutes until he feels OK, at which point he runs back to the playground.
I don’t have a problem with either of these parenting styles. Parents are different, just as kids are, and everyone finds a style that suits them. Ideally, kids would have a number of adults in their lives with different parenting/caregiving styles and would learn a variety of lessons about the world. It wouldn’t even matter if the parent in example a) were a mum and the parent in example b) were a dad. No biggie.
Example c): Dad of one boy and AP mum of the other boy both notice what they are doing and wander over. Dad picks up a stick to join in the game, while mum approaches her own son. Without addressing the dad at all, she speaks loudly to her son. “Tommy, you know that we don’t play violent games. I want you to stop that right now. You’ll just slip over on those wet rocks, anyhow, and get hurt.” She approaches her son and grabs his free hand. “Put the stick down now, we are going back.” The boy has no choice but to drop the stick and go with his mum. The dad and his son are standing by, staring. As the boy turns to follow his mum he slips on a rock and skins his knee. He looks up and bursts into tears. “See, I told you this wasn’t safe! Look what you have done!” the mum remonstrates. She picks up her son, turns her back on the dad, and heads straight back to the group. She nurses her son for 15 minutes and he stays with his mum for the rest of the time in the park.
In this example the AP parent has excluded the other parent, dismissed his parenting style as violent and unsafe, and therefore unacceptable. All without even having the courtesy to address him directly. She is also subtly undermining her son’s independence, emphasising the message that he is not safe without her, and that he shouldn’t stray so far away.
If the mum and dad were actually partners and parents of the same boy it would probably have been even worse. The number of times I saw AP mothers publicly belittling and scolding their partners for their more “masculine” (again for want of a better word) parenting styles was sickening.