Dads give daughters reins, moms hand heartstrings to sons

September 10, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

The ceiling fan clicked, clicked, clicked off the seconds as my neighbor and I waited in his steamy kitchen for the kids to surface and ask about dinner.

Our spouses were working, so Bob and I were in charge. It was a hot summer night, and the children were wringing the last of the light out of the day. School would start soon, and they played each night with urgency.

We did what parents often do in those brief intervals between the demands of our children. We talked. You can't accomplish anything in those nanoseconds between their wants and needs, so you might as well start a conversation. You won't finish that either, but it beats putting in another load of wash.

Since Bob is the father of a daughter and I am the mother of a son -- and since we also have second children of the opposite sex -- we talked about how differently parents relate to girl and boy children and how frustrating those differences can be, especially after hearing all that good advice about presenting a united parental front.

Bob had had just enough college psychology, and we'd both had just enough rum and tonic, to consider that Sigmund Freud may have been onto something. We all might have a crazy Uncle Oedipus living in the attic.

I told Bob that when I watched him with his 4-year-old Susannah, I saw in his face the same expression I have seen a thousand times in my husband's face when he deals with Jessie: mindless adoration.

"He is stupid for her," I said. "It even shows up in family pictures. He's looking at her with this empty-headed grin on his face. His eyes are smiling, but they are dull. And you know there isn't a thought in his head except to grant her every wish."

And I told Bob that, when he calls from the porch for his son, I hear an edginess in his voice. It's the same teeth-grinding, tongue-biting tone that my husband uses with our son. The tone you use when you are just waiting for someone to do something to irritate you.

Bob countered -- quite correctly, I confess -- that I had too often rescued my son. And, he said, there can be a snippiness to my exchanges with my daughter.

"Don't worry," he said. "It's normal. And it will pass."

Men seem to have this need to toughen their sons with their judgments, while women need to protect their sons from just such harshness. Men are mysteriously worshipful of their daughters, and women are, predictably, jealous, he said.

It is a perfect system for the kids. (Aren't they all?) But it can produce real conflict between the parents.

My husband found my son's complaints about the heat during soccer camp unmanly, but he found my daughter's complaints adorable. Joe was in camp for 12 hours a day, Jessie for three.

And I have resented his comments about my son's acquisitive nature, as well as his indulgence of Jessie's every whim. She has quickly learned that Daddy will say yes.

"What are you going to do," I say to him, "when she comes to you at 16 and says, 'But D-a-a-a-addy. Why can't my boyfriend sleep over?' "

Bob, recalling some long-dormant college lectures, assured me that at some point -- and Gary and I would know when -- we would be able to say in effect to our children: "Go out and find your own companion. This one is mine."

Bob suggested that Joe's battles with my husband are really about me. And my battles with Jessie are really about my husband. But I found this too much to take in.

"Maybe they are just brats," I said.

But I can not deny the benefits to Freud's system of child rearing. Joe will have the safety net of my love and comfort as he struggles to find his footing in this man's world. And Jessie will get to test her charms on the harmless target of her father, instead of on some unpredictable teen-aged boy.

And Bob is right. At some point, and I hope I know when, I will tell Jessie to stop her manipulations and deal with the world straight on. (I hope it is before he buys her a car.) And I will cut the strings that may trip my son.

Too quickly, Bob and I were interrupted. The mosquitoes were eating, and the kids wanted to eat, too. We realized we hadn't done a thing about dinner.

FTC It was then that Bob and I found Freud to be right about one thing: Sometimes a microwaved hot dog is just a microwaved hot dog.

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