Why does dad get socks and ties on Father's Day while mom gets flowers and candy on Mother's Day?

Year after year, we presume that on their special holidays mother prefers dinner at a nice restaurant while father would rather cook burgers in the back yard.

Last week, a colleague announced her family had figured out what to give her father this Sunday: "Hypnosis so he can stop smoking," she said, delighted. Her father doesn't want to stop smoking.

How we treat our fathers on Father's Day says a lot about fatherhood in our society, according to psychologists. That we tend to express love for dad with socks or a Weed Eater, they add, is apt commentary on traditional American father-child communication.

"Fathers tend to confuse feeling with sentimentality, which for them means to be effeminate, sissies, weak," says John Munder Ross, a New York psychoanalyst and coeditor of Father and Child: Developmental and Clinical Perspectives (Little, Brown; $29.50). Ross cautions that it is a gross generalization to lump all American fathers together, but adds that they tend not to acknowledge their emotional needs to their children, and their children respond by protecting the "no-nonsense illusion" about the relationship.

"We pander to fathers' anti-sentimentalism," says Ross, "and end up depriving them in the process."

Deprivation has marked Father's Day from its beginnings. The idea originated in 1909 when Mrs. John Bruce Dodd persuaded the Ministerial Society of Spokane, Wash., to salute The One Who Knew Best with special annual church services, but the tribute wasn't widespread. Fifteen years later, Calvin Coolidge urged that the day be observed nationally "to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children, and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations." But Congress didn't officially proclaim it a national holiday until 1972 -- almost 60 years after Mother's Day had been established as a fixture on the national calendar.

The real rub, according to some Father's Day apologists, is timing. Dad's special day, celebrated on the third Sunday of June, seems to pale in comparison to Mother's Day, always five weekends earlier. S. Adams Sullivan, author of The Father's Almanac (Doubleday Dolphin, $7.95), calls it "an afterthought" to Mother's Day. "Women have the emotional edge with children," says Sullivan, a father of two who agrees that "nobody can ever think of anything to give fathers other than socks -- although sometimes I get underwear."

Emotionally neutral or practical gifts for father, says Zick Rubin, professor of Social Psychology at Brandeis University, indicate the kind of camouflaged expressions of affection many fathers give and receive from the time their children are infants. Society now recognizes that, typically, a father's emotional reserve isn't lack of love but the product of a traditional male upbringing.

"In the world of masculinity, expressions of emotion are traditionally less direct," says Rubin, who has studied fathers and sons for four years. "Mothers are treated in unabashedly sentimental ways -- the flowers, the kisses, the direct 'I love you's.' Unabashed sentiment doesn't fly as easily with fathers."

Statistics seem to support the contention that children not only are emotionally restricted with their fathers but are sentimentally and financially spent come Father's Day, following the shower of affections -- sometimes inspired by guilt -- on Mother's Day.

Last year, for instance, Mother's Day recorded 20 million interstate long-distance telephone calls, says Steve Cross, a spokesman for AT&T. The phone lines cooled down to 17.6 million calls on Father's Day. This year, Mother's Day tallied 22.9 million calls, topping even last Christmas -- always ranked the No. 1 day for long-distance dialing -- by 1.3 million. (The typical Sunday averages 14.5 million calls.)

Greeting card sales show a similar Mother's Day bulge. In 1984, Mother's Day card sales reached 135 million, industry-wide, while Father's Day prompted sales of only 85 million cards.

"Traditionally, mothers are dear to everyone's heart, while perhaps fewer people feel the need to give their dads a card," says Rachel Bolton, spokeswoman for Hallmark Cards. Her company, says Bolton, this year produced 1,200 types of Mother's Day cards, including a variety for "women like mothers" -- older sisters, aunts, grandmothers. Only 835 varieties of cards are printed for Father's Day, though Bolton says that recently cards for dads have changed -- reflecting a new role and image for fathers in the '80s.

"The greeting card industry has to keep track of all demographic and sociological change," says Bolton. "Father's Day cards today are communicating more emotion between fathers and children. They're shorter, direct, and more often in prose rather than verse. They're replacing the old Father's Day cards that used long and involved poetry and tended to hide the message."

This year's batch of cards, says Bolton, sends messages to fathers such as, "For all the times I didn't say I love you, this comes to say I do," and "Thanks, Dad, for encouraging me to be myself and accepting me just as I am."

"And now," says Bolton, "there are more and more Father's Day cards from wives to husbands recognizing his help in caring for the children."

The trend in American fatherhood, agree psychologists, is away from the meat-and-potatoes father of the past when the fact that he toiled daily to provide a living for the family was proof enough of his love. Changing social mores and basic economics have drawn father in from the family periphery in more and more American households. The result: What once was described as a fear of fathering is transforming into a fascination with fathering.

The shift is documented in Dr. Benjamin Spock's advice in Baby and Child Care. For more than 25 years, his original instruction that a father could be "warm" and still be a "real man" read: " . . . I don't mean that the father has to give just as many bottles or change just as many diapers as the mother. But it's fine for him to do these things occasionally. He might make the formula on Sunday." The latest edition of Spock's bestseller is revised: " . . . a father with a full-time job -- even where a mother is staying home -- will do best by his children, by his wife and himself if he takes on half or more of the management of the children . . . "

In colonial America "fathers were the prime arbiters of their children's emotional and intellectual development," says Ross. "With the gradual removal of men from the home because of their work structure, fathers became the uninvolved parent."Now, with women taking a greater role outside the home, fathers tend to share those responsibilities again. The trend is to have fathers who are more active and equal partners in their children's lives."

Says Sullivan, whose new book, Quality Time for Parents and Kids (Doubleday), will be published in February: "The image of the father was one of the guy who stands back and waits until the child is old enough to play baseball. Now you have fathers picking up on the child's career from the delivery room on."

Anyone recalling the shocking survey of the early '70s that determined the typical father spent 38 seconds a day with his kids might agree with feminists who say the reason mother has been treated better on her holiday is that, as a "second-class citizen," she needed a show of appreciation.

"That was probably truer of five or 10 years ago than it is now," says Ross. "Men got a lot of satisfaction from work but women didn't get clear daily affirmation, except with things like Mother's Day. You could see it as a sop or bribe."

Today, with equal-opportunity parenthood in more American families, is "saying it with socks" appropriate on Father's Day?

"I don't think fathers have any less of a need to be loved and appreciated by their children than mothers do," says Rubin. "I'm not sure that implies we ought to start sending fathers flowers on Father's Day. But whether it's flowers or socks, expressions of love are important for everyone."

Considering the radical changes in the American family and fatherhood, the future of Father's Day, says Ross, is no more certain than was its past: "With more 'New Fathers' and more women having babies without men, in 20 years Father's Day could either be an anachronism or the order of the day."