Opinion: Here's why I've had enough of outdated stereotypes of fatherhood

father and son playing on couch
Traditional parenting gender roles are deceptively simple, writes Nathan Wallis. Photo credit: Getty.

OPINION: Is there any scientific evidence from the last hundred years that confirms the commonly held belief that women are more suited to the role of caring for children than men? Not to my knowledge.

Or that infants develop better when cared for by their mother? Bottom line is - no, there's not.

Breastfeeding is the most robust argument given against this, but even that doesn't exclude males caring for infants - I used to take my daughter twice a day to her mum's workplace to be breastfed. 

What research does consistently show over and over again is that an infant certainly does need a primary attachment figure - or one consistent person they build an attachment to. But it's the skills of that caregiver which determine the success of the attachment - not their sex or gender.

Listen to director of X-Factor Education Nathan Wallis talk more on men raising children, on Newshub podcast 'R&R with Eru & K'Lee'.

In fact, that person doesn't even need to be related to the infant in order to achieve good outcomes for them. It is the quality of the interactions and the responsiveness of the caregiver that determines who the baby attaches to, and this overrides gender and even biological relatedness. 

So, while mainstream culture might have it deeply embedded that woman are the "natural" child raisers, it doesn't appear to be so deeply embedded in our biology. Yes, certainly the biology of bringing a baby into the world is the domain of wahine and the whare tangata, but who takes on the role of primary attachment figure is a much more culturally laden decision. 

As an example, diary entries from missionaries in NZ spanning across the 1800s - the only written record we have of Māori parenting prior to colonisation- show clearly different views from today's mainstream thinking on the roles of men and women in rearing children.

In fact, multiple missionaries across the century were criticising Māori men for acting more like nurses than warriors when it came to their children! 

The traditional and typical Māori father portrayed in these written accounts all describe men as deeply involved with their children, as very caring and nurturing towards them, and often taking on the role of primary caregiver. 

"The New Zealand father is devotedly fond of his children, they are his pride, his boast, and peculiar delight; he generally bears the burden of carrying them continually within his mat," writes Polak, in Treatment of Children (1838). 

"The children are seldom or never punished; which consequently, causes them to commit so many annoying tricks, that continually renders them deserving of a sound, wholesome castigation. 

"The father performs the duty of a nurse; and any foul action the embryo warrior may be guilty of, causes a smile rather than a tear from the devoted parent."

So men raising children isn't a new thing - just the idea of it is to some. We have historic examples where it worked out brilliantly - Maui was raised by a solo adoptive/whangai dad! 

Looking at research around the advantages of having men involved in child-rearing, a lot of the examples quoted in literature are simply the advantages of having two parents over having only one. Of course, that's an advantage! 

The more gender-specific advantages like increased risk taking from rough play with dad are very real, but they are not really the domain of males only, any more than being nurturing is the domain of females only. In reality, men and woman are both on a spectrum that sees huge movement and overlap of these qualities. The literature is to me simply encouraging us all to embrace all types of play, and for us all to embrace the role of nurturer. 

Having stayed at home with two of my children when they were infants, I know that many of the stereotypes about mums are in fact stereotypes about the primary caregiver, and not really about gender at all. For example, when I was the primary caregiver it was me that seemed to talk about nothing else but the baby non-stop and get giddy with excitement over new accomplishments and even healthy stools! 

It's because it is your whole life when you are a baby's main person, not because of your gender. I would fret much more about leaving the baby with a babysitter - another trait associated with mums usually but is actually about being the baby's main person or primary attachment figure - that causes the fretting - not your gender. 

In short, to summarise my understanding of the research and insight into the topic of men raising children, it is deceptively simple. I've never met a man in my whole life who thought upon reflection that he was too involved in raising his kids and feels that by being nurturing and caring and expressing love, that he in some way diminished his children's outcomes or hurt them in any way. Never ever heard that. But I've heard a lot of regret from dads and mums, about not doing these things enough. The question is not should dads nurture babies instead of mums, but if dads can be encouraged and allowed to nurture babies as well as mums.

As either primary or secondary carer to your child, as either a woman or a man in those roles, your child benefits from your love and affection. So let's embrace that for all and make room for men to express their taonga tuku iho of being nurturers who also raise children alongside and with women. 

Nathan Wallis is a neuroscience educator and director of X-Factor Education. Watch Wallis' full discussion with Eru and K'Lee on ThreeNow.