Why Dads Get Short Shrift on Father’s Day — and Dads Are O.K. With It

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When it comes to their respective days of honor, why do dads get funny ties and moms get diamond-heart necklaces? Why do we spend 40% more on Mother’s Day than Father’s Day? Some seemingly ungrateful children (and a few dads) offer explanations.

Every year since the National Retail Federation has been keep track, the amount consumers spend on Father’s Day gifts has been significantly less than the average spent on Mother’s Day. This year, average Father’s Day spending is expected to be around $120, compared with $169 for moms.

To get to the bottom of this apparent inequity, I interviewed scores of dads and kids about Father’s Day. Here’s what they had to say about why dads get less:

They Don’t Speak Up

The provider role that’s central to many fathers’ identities doesn’t really jibe well with having their kids provide them with stuff. Either that or many dads just don’t know what they want. In any event, it’s commonplace for kids to have no clue what to buy. Here are a few of the quotes from children that tell the story:

“Mom always gives us hints, we know what she wants. Dad? He always says the same thing, ‘I don’t want anything.’ I have no idea what to get him, so I usually just get him a card or something small.” — Mylene, 13

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“My dad always says he doesn’t need anything. Probably true but not helpful.” — Jacob, 16

“I always got my mom bubble bath and she’d always get so excited. I thought it was perfect and she looked forward to it every year. Then I was looking for Q-Tips and I found like five bottles of it under the sink. At least with Dad he’s honest about it. There isn’t really anything I can get him that he wouldn’t get for himself already. He always says, ‘Don’t waste your money.’ So I don’t.” — Andrea, 25

They Have Expensive Tastes

Boxer shorts and barbecue aprons with humorous Father’s Day messages became popular for a reason: They’re cheap gifts, and Dad is a good enough sport to wear them. Does he actually want this stuff? Probably not. But the things that many dads truly do want are often out of the price range of the kids doing the shopping. Because the things Dad really likes are expensive, and he’s picky about them, the folks buying Father’s Day items regularly defer to the marketer-generated, inexpensive fallback gift options.

“The only thing I know for sure he wants is an iPad. No way I can get that for him so, I don’t know, a gift card or a T-shirt?” — Evan, 28

“I got my dad the most expensive golf balls in the store last year. I thought he didn’t get them because they were expensive. He exchanged them. He is very particular when it comes to golf. Actually with everything.” — Christine, 14

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“My mother has a wide variety of interests. There’s always something I know will delight her. My father? The only things I can every think of that would really surprise and delight him are well beyond my budget. Like a car or a vacation rental.” — Janelle, 35

Nothing Against Dad, More Like It’s All About Mom

The dads and kids I talked to are fine with Mom getting more — it’s not about dishonoring or loving Dad any less. Father’s Day just doesn’t have the emotional significance of Mother’s Day. Mothers, husbands and children alike all care more about Mother’s Day, simple as that. Plus, for younger children, the parents set the budget, and dads seem willing to go overboard and spend more to pamper the women in their lives.

“It’s not so much that I spend less on Dad, more like I spend more on Mom. She really needs a day that’s all about her. Plus, she loves it, and I don’t think Dad cares.” — Sarina, 30

“Dad takes me shopping and he lets me spend more than Mom.” — Ariella, 8

“I don’t think my father cares much. Mom definitely does.” — Samuel, 33

Are Dads Really Cool With This?

The fathers I spoke with echoed the sentiments of the kids I interviewed. They said that: 1) they didn’t want anything, 2) their kids shouldn’t be spending money on them, 3) the things they really want are intangibles or specific — or too expensive to expect as gifts, and 4) Mother’s Day means more to their spouses than Father’s Day does to them, and that’s just fine.

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Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“What I’d really like for Father’s Day is a day to go fishing — without the kids.” — Steve, a father of 8-year-old twin boys (his request was followed up by his wife’s comment, “Well that’s not going to happen.”)

“My favorite Father’s Day gifts? By far handmade coupons for things like chores, raking the leaves or washing my car; or hugs or going to a Giant’s game with me.” — Robert, father of two children, now adults

“Yes, I want to be acknowledged on Father’s Day. I don’t really care about a gift, but if my kid wasn’t thoughtful enough to remember Father’s Day, it would mean I’d done a bad job as a father.” — Chris, father of two teenagers

“What I want for Father’s Day is for my kid to get a job and get out of the house.” — Howard, who has a 28-year-old son still living at home

Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is a co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.