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The Importance of Dads

Expert findings about involved fathers


Research about a mother’s role in child development abounds, largely because attachment theory gives a basis from which to conduct the research. No such theory exists for fathers, which may be part of the reason that the influence fathers have on their children wasn’t as well researched until recently, when researchers began to shift away from looking at fathers as the “other parent.” Now, instead of viewing fathers only through the lens of what is known about mothers, researchers are looking at the unique and important ways fathers influence their children.[i]

As a result of that research, it is now established that fathers play an essential role in the upbringing of their children. And they can be every bit as sensitive and nurturing to their children as mothers can.[ii] A father’s nurturing presence can continue to benefit children and help them develop cognitive, socially, and emotionally as they grow up. In fact, in a 2001 review of the father's love, researchers Rohner and Veneziano concluded, “Overall, father love appears to be as heavily implicated as mother love in offsprings’ psychological wellbeing and health, as well as in an array of psychological and behavioral problems.”[iii]

This article will examine the evidence on how a father’s love and involvement can influence a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. It also will cover research on the mother-father relationship, and how involved fathering benefits fathers themselves.

What is an Involved Father?

Most fathers try to do their best for their children. Yet a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes, “Too many fathers become convinced that they are simply an extra set of hands to help around the house, rather than irreplaceable to their children.”[i]

The point of this article is to highlight the ways in which fathers become involved in ways that are “irreplaceable to their children.” To do that, it’s necessary to understand exactly what an involved father is, and how he can be most successful. Many researchers have asked just this question, and have provided us a good deal of insight.

In 1987, researchers Lamb, Pleck, Chernov, and Levine outlined three fundamental aspects of father involvement. These traits form the basis for a positive, nurturing father-child relationship:[i]

  1. Engagement: father's direct contact and shared interactions with their children
  2. Availability: father's presence or accessibility to the child
  3. Responsibility: father's arrangement for resources to be available to the child

Building on the work by Lamb, Pleck, and Chernov, another researcher by the name of Palkovitz enumerated 15 distinct ways in which fathers tend to be involved with their children:[ii]

  • Communicating
  • Teaching
  • Monitoring
  • Engaging in thought processes
  • Providing
  • Showing affection
  • Protecting
  • Supporting emotionally
  • Running errands
  • Caregiving
  • Engaging in child-related maintenance
  • Sharing interests
  • Being available
  • Planning
  • Sharing activities

Some researchers focus on play behavior as being central to fathering, just as nurturing behavior is seen as essential to mothering. Father-child play is important for children because it is physical and highly stimulating, which allows the child to experience the activation and regulation of arousal.[iii] It also helps children understand and test boundaries in a safe environment, which helps them in countless ways as they figure out the world.

An involved father is one who is sensitive, warm, close, friendly, supportive, intimate, nurturing, affectionate, encouraging, comforting and accepting.

In their comprehensive report, “The Effects of Father Involvement: An Updated Research Summary of the Evidence,” researchers Sarah Allen, PhD, and Kerry Daly, PhD, define an involved father as one who is “sensitive, warm, close, friendly, supportive, intimate, nurturing, affectionate, encouraging, comforting, and accepting.” They classify fathers as involved if their child has developed a strong attachment to them.[iv]

Not all fathers have the level of involvement they’d like to have. Whether it’s due to life circumstances or other factors, some fathers haven’t yet stepped into their role as important, nurturing influences on their children.

What makes some fathers more likely to be involved than others? A number of factors can determine a father’s success, including the following:[v]

  • The father’s own upbringing (including his relationship with his parents)
  • His cultural history
  • His biological history (such as mental illness, alcoholism, health)
  • His characteristics (employment, age, personality, etc.)
  • The mother’s characteristics
  • Contextual factors (relationship with the mother, community connections, etc.)
  • The child’s characteristics

Because the role of the father is less defined in Western society than the role of the mother, influences such as those listed above seem to have a more significant impact on how involved a father is. But the flexibility of the father’s role also means that shifts in external factors—like when a mother begins modeling positive parenting behavior, for instance—can enhance a father’s own parenting. Or on the other hand, if a mother isn’t able to care for an infant well, as may be the case with postpartum depression or illness, the father may not only jump in to help more, but he may gather additional resources from family or community members. This act of increasing support can buffer the effects of the mother’s inability to connect. At the same time, it bolster’s the father’s confidence in his own parenting and strengthens his bond with his child.

Another factor that is often discussed—and sometimes misunderstood—is socioeconomic status. The stereotype of the uninvolved low-income father is ubiquitous. But research dispels that stereotype. Michael Lamb, a psychology professor who has published extensively on the role of the father in child development, has stated, “Our research really bashes the stereotype of the low-income father. These fathers care about their kids, but may not show their love in conventional ways and sometimes a lack of a job, poor communication with the mom, or even their own childhood experiences can prevent them from getting involved.”[vi]

Whatever the underlying cause, though, the research is clear: With proper support, even fathers in challenging situations can provide a positive and nurturing influence in their children’s lives.

Cognitive Development

Infants as young as 5 months old score higher on measures of cognitive development if they have highly involved fathers.

Many studies have confirmed that a father’s involvement can have powerful effects on a child’s cognitive development. It begins to become clear in infants as young as 5 months old, who score higher on measures of cognitive development if they have highly involved fathers.[i] (For these purposes, that’s defined as fathers who participate in more play and caregiving activities.)

These benefits continue as children get older. By age 1, kids whose fathers are more involved have higher cognitive functioning.[ii] As toddlers, they have better problem-solving abilities.[iii] At age 3, they have higher IQs.[iv] Once children reach school age, the benefits of involved fathers become even more apparent. Kids whose dads are active participants in their lives do better across the spectrum of educational competence—from getting better grades and performing better in school to being more motivated and valuing education more.[v]

One of the reasons for this may be the way fathers tend to talk to their children—asking more questions using the words who, what, when, where, and why. These types of questions prompt children to communicate more, which can increase their vocabulary and improve their speaking skills.[vi]

Another important link to consider is economics. Fathers who are more involved with their children tend also to provide for them financially, and children who are better off financially tend to do better in school. That makes it hard to determine whether children are doing better in school because their fathers or more involved or if it’s because they’re better off economically. But one thing is certain, fathers who spend a lot of time helping their children with their studies absolutely increase the quality of their children’s learning. They can also help children’s thinking skills—and their success later in life—by being involved with their social, fitness, and sports activities.[vii]

One of the key ways fathers help in their children’s growth is by allowing them to develop a sense of industry. This belief in one’s ability to master skills helps them develop their sense of self-esteem.[viii] Fathers tend to be more likely to challenge their children to try new things. When children face these challenges and succeed (even after frustration), they begin to believe in their ability to do difficult things.

When fathers give their kids greater responsibilities—such as carrying scissors, crossing the street, or bathing themselves—it improves the kids’ thinking skills.[ix] Helping kids master new challenges also encourages them to take responsibility for their own actions.[x] And the sense of control they gain helps them feel in control of their own successes and failures rather than attributing them to other people, events, or circumstances.[xi]

Emotional and Social Development

Studies have found that children with involved fathers can better tolerate stress and frustration, are better at problem solving, and have better control over their emotions and impulses. 

Many (not all) couples describe an instant bond between mother and baby. For fathers, on the other hand, that connection sometimes isn’t fully realized until the baby’s love becomes more reciprocal. But even if the father-infant bond isn’t instant, the groundwork for that later connection is laid through early efforts on the part of the father.

When a baby experiences predictable, consistent, and caring responses to his needs, he feels more secure. This security allows the baby to trust the people caring for him. He comes to prefer those people to other adults, in a process called attachment. Mothers are often the primary caregivers and more relied upon for nurturing and security, but fathers are also capable of creating this secure and attached bond with their infants. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: The more time fathers spend with their babies, the better they understand their cues. And the better they understand the cues, the stronger an attachment they create.[i]

When fathers are engaged in taking care of their infants, the positive results are clear. Babies become more securely attached to their fathers, are more resilient and curious, and they are more confident to branch out and explore.[ii],[iii] One study that looked at 3-year-olds found that when fathers participated in their childcare, their social development benefited.[iv] Another administered tests of empathy to grade school children and found that those who had had secure attachments to their fathers as babies were better able to identify other children’s feelings, and to take steps to make them feel better.[v]

Here are some ways fathers can create attachment with their infants:

  • Pay attention to their cues, and respond consistently and compassionately.
  • Keep them physically close. Babywearing is a perfect way to use physical closeness to promote feelings of safety and security.
  • Talk, read, and sing to your baby. Even if she’s too young to understand what you’re saying, she’ll learn to be comforted by your voice.
  • Play with your baby in an age-appropriate way (peekaboo, for instance).

Once babies are old enough to play with their fathers, the relationship can really begin to bloom. Mothers and fathers both play with their children, but generally they have different play styles (again, this is not true across the board). Mothers tend to interact with their children using more soothing voices and repetitive rhythms. Fathers, on the other hand, tend to be more stimulating in their play styles. They also tend to spend a greater proportion of their time with their kids playing.[vi] Play is an important way in which fathers—even those who do not have as much time to spend with their children—become important and meaningful figures in their kids’ lives.

This play isn’t only for entertainment. When young children play with their fathers, they are figuring out the world and beginning to understand how to relate to others. They learn about limits and boundaries, while also developing problem-solving skills. Not only that, but play also allows toddlers to experience a range of emotions, such as happiness, frustration, and excitement. It gives them the opportunity to practice feeling and regulating these emotions in the context of a safe, trusted, and attached relationship. These skills developed in toddlerhood carry through to later life.

As kids get older, father involvement helps them live more satisfied lives with less depression, emotional distress, and negative feelings like fear and guilt.[vii] Kids with involved fathers also say they’re happier and less anxious.[viii] They have better relationships with their siblings and peers.[ix] Their relationships are less negative, more generous, and fraught with less conflict.[x] On the other hand, negative or hostile relationships with fathers can result in negative social behavior and difficult peer relationships.[xi]

Certain personality traits are more common among kids with involved fathers, and those are traits that can contribute to lifelong happiness and success. For instance, studies have found that children with involved fathers can better tolerate stress and frustration, are better at problem solving, and have better control over their emotions and impulses.[xii],[xiii]

As young adults, people who had nurturing and available fathers tend to be better adjusted, dependable, and friendly, and they report higher levels of self-acceptance.[xiv],[xv] They’re more tolerant and understanding and have more supportive, long-term, close friendships.[xvi],[xvii] Father-child relationships even affect a person’s future marriage. People who had involved fathers are more likely to have long-term, successful marriage and less divorce.[xviii],[xix] In fact, the quality of the father-child relationship is the single variable that is most consistently linked to positive life outcomes.[xx] It’s also the most important predictor of empathy in children and adults.[xxi]

Involved fathers can help improve positive outcomes for kids, so it makes sense that they can also help prevent negative behaviors. Some of the most common—and troubling—problems of childhood and adolescence diminish when fathers take an active role in their children’s lives. In children, feeling close to a father and frequently doing things with him can cut risk of antisocial behavior, hyperactivity, and behavior problems.[xxii] It also prevents bullying and may help buffer kids from becoming victims.[xxiii] For preschoolers with behavior challenges, a father’s involvement can help prevent those problems from showing up in grade school.[xxiv]

In adolescence, it becomes even more important to avoid negative behaviors, since the stakes can be higher. And a close relationship with a father can help adolescents stay on the right track. Kids who identify strongly with their fathers avoid a number of serious negative outcomes—including being jailed, becoming unwed parents, skipping school, and using drugs.[xxv],[xxvi],[xxvii]

When fathers are absent, according to the report by Allen and Daly, “Boys, on average, are more likely to be more unhappy, sad, depressed, dependent, and hyperactive. Girls … are more likely to become overly dependant and have internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression.”[xxviii]

The Mother-Father Relationship

Involved fathering seems to be linked to stronger marriages – and those results are lasting.

It probably goes without saying that fathers who play an active role in raising their kids lighten the load of their partners. But the research is still very impressive. Women who are emotionally supported by their husbands feel better, have better pregnancies, births, breastfeeding experiences, and have better postpartum mental health.[i],[ii]

Those good feelings continue as the babies grow into children. When fathers are very involved, encouraging, and supportive, mothers tend to be more positive, sensitive, and responsive to their kids.[iii] All of those traits in a mother make it more likely for kids to be happy and secure, underlining the importance of supportive fathers.

In addition, involved fathering seems to be linked to stronger marriages—and those results are lasting. Men who take an active part in raising their children are not only improving the health of their partnerships while their kids are young, they’re also more likely to report feeling happy in their marriage 10 or 20 years later.[iv]

The connection goes both ways. The quality of a man’s relationship with his partner can also have an effect on his relationship with his children. When they’re in good, healthy marriages, fathers are more likely to be involved in childcare responsibilities and have better relationships with their kids. The reason for this might be that when men are committed to their marriages, they are committed to the whole package—including kids.[v] In relationships that are filled with conflict, on the other hand, fathers are less likely to have good and nurturing relationships with their kids.[vi]

Fathers aren’t the only ones who play a role in making the father-child relationship successful. Their partners make a difference too. When wives are supportive of their husbands’ parenting and see them as capable and competent, the husbands are more likely to be involved with the children. They also feel more comfortable and competent, as well as more satisfied.[vii]

Some researchers have looked at what they call “mother gatekeeping.” That’s the tendency of some mothers to be reluctant to encourage their partners to be more involved in childrearing, for any number of reasons—fear of loss of control, doubts about the father’s competence, and discomfort altering their standards. Unsurprisingly, mother gatekeeping stands in the way of fathers’ becoming more involved with their children, while also making them feel less competent.[viii]

For all these reasons, one of the best ways to improve a father’s relationship with his children is to strengthen his relationship with his partner. When fathers feel supported, empowered, and viewed positively by their partners, they are much more likely to be involved fathers.

Another important benefit of a constructive and positive relationship between parents is that it serves as a model for children when they develop their own relationships down the road. It teaches them how to provide emotional support, deal with conflict positively, be respectful, and communicate well.

“Fathers who treat the mothers of their children with respect and deal with conflict within the relationship in an adult and appropriate manner are more likely to have boys who understand how they are to treat women and who are less likely to act in an aggressive fashion toward females,” according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Daughters benefit as well, says the report. “Girls with involved, respectful fathers see how they should expect men to treat them and are less likely to become involved in violent or unhealthy relationships. In contrast, research has shown that husbands who display anger, show contempt for, or who stonewall their wives (i.e., ‘the silent treatment’) are more likely to have children who are anxious, withdrawn, or antisocial.”[ix]

All that said, fathers can still play a vital role in their children’s lives even if they are not in a partnership with the mother. The benefits of involved fathers aren’t limited to fathers who live with their children. Studies have shown that even in families where the father lives apart from his child—or in situations when it’s a stepfather or adoptive father who is raising the child—warm and loving paternal figures have positive effects on children’s wellbeing.[x],[xi],[xii]

According to the research, the single most important variable with fathers who don’t live with their children is the quality of the fathers’ relationships with the children and the mothers.[xiii] Kids do better when the parents have a consistent, respectful, and high-quality relationship, even if it’s not a romantic one. Even after a divorce, if mothers are more positive and supportive about the fathers’ abilities and fathering benefits. Visits are more frequent and the relationships between fathers and kids are better.[xiv]

After a divorce or separation, children thrive when their fathers maintain an authoritative role. Authoritative parenting is much different than authoritarian parenting. If authoritarian parents rule the household like dictators, authoritative parents provide a calm, loving, and consistent presence for their children. That presence gives children the framework they need to make positive choices—and to know that even when they don’t, they will still be loved. Authoritative parenting was first described by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind. Here are some of the key characteristics of authoritative parents:

  • They are democratic.
  • They are attentive to their children.
  • They have clear and consistent rules, and they hold their children to them.
  • They forgive.

Fathers who practice authoritative parenting after a separation have adolescents who are less likely to be depressed or have other problems.[xv] When children become adolescents, having a father involved—regardless of whether he lives with the child—can help avoid or diminish negative behaviors. According to the report by Allen and Daly, “Father involvement partially mediates the effects of family structure on adolescent behavioral outcomes in that it reduces both the size and the significance of nearly all the statistically significant family structure effects on adolescent behavior, suggesting that father involvement is a critical factor in predicting adolescent behavioral outcomes.”[xvi]

One of the main takeaways from the research is this: It’s the quality of the time a father spends with his children that influences their outcomes. The intrinsic quality of the relationship, and not extrinsic factors like expensive dinners and gifts, can alleviate the negative effects on children caused by a divorce or separation.[xvii]

Benefits for Fathers

A man’s emotional involvement with his children can actually further his career in a number of ways.

Fathers themselves are better off in countless ways when they’re involved with their children. They are more confident, effective, and satisfied in their parenting than fathers who are not as involved.[i] They see their interactions with their kids more positively and are more attentive, understanding, and accepting of their children.[ii],[iii]

The benefits reach beyond family relationships and into the broader community as well. Children naturally encourage their parents to broaden their horizons. Fathers who spend a lot of quality time with their children are therefore more likely to form community connections, socialize more, and take leadership positions in their community.[iv],[v]

Even a father’s work and career benefit from his attentiveness to his children. It might seem counterintuitive, since time with children is time not spent working, but the research shows that a man’s emotional involvement with his children can actually further his career in a number of ways, while also protecting against work-related stresses.[vi] Some research has found that fathers who spend more time with their kids also work more hours and earn more money.[vii] This could be due to the fact that many fathers believe that one of their key roles in the family is that of economic provider. Considering this sense of responsibility, it makes sense that fathers feel a greater attachment to their careers than do men who are not fathers.[viii]

That’s not to say that work and family life are always easy to balance. In fact, if fathers work too much, it can have a negative impact on his relationship with his kids—making him less accepting and less able to see different perspectives.[ix] A number of recent changes in the workforce, including paternity leave, flexible work hours, and telecommuting, are helping to address the challenge of work-family balance. These sorts of solutions, which allow for a more thorough integration of family life and work life, are beneficial not only for fathers, but for their spouses and children as well.

How to Become a More Involved Father

Kids feel a father’s love when he spends time with them. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are three main reasons that the time a father spends with his children is critically important: “First, spending time together enables a father to get to know and to be known by his child. A father can best discover his child’s virtues and vices, hopes and fears, and aspirations and ideals by spending lots of time with his child. Second, a father who spends lots of time with his child tends to be better at caring. Time spent together makes a father more sensitive to his child’s needs for love, attention, direction, and discipline. And third, children often do see time as an indicator of a parent’s love for them.”[i]

But what exactly does quality time with dad look like? The report goes on to summarize the current research, offering the following suggestions:

  • Have fun. As discussed elsewhere in this paper, fathers are uniquely suited to bond with their children by engaging them in play and fun-filled activities. These sorts of interactions help children learn to navigate the world around them, understand compassion and empathy, and gain control over their impulses, among other benefits.
  • Don’t stop as children get older. “Fathers should maintain the active, physical, and playful style of fathering as their children age,” according to the report. “In other words, when it comes to father-child fun, active pursuits like tossing the football, playing basketball, hiking, or going to the library are more valuable than spending time in passive activities such as watching television—for their relationship and for their child’s emotional wellbeing, social development, and physical fitness.”
  • Be productive. It’s very important for children to do productive tasks with their fathers—such as cleaning up around the house, doing laundry, or working in the yard. These types of shared activities instill in children a sense of responsibility and self-esteem. And in the long run, engaging in helpful activities with dad can help kids succeed in school and live, have greater psychological wellbeing, and be more engaged civically.
  • Teach them. When fathers are involved in their children’s educational activities, children are more likely to succeed academically. This engagement can take a number of forms, from reading with children to helping with their homework or attending parent-teacher meetings. This is one area in which a father’s involvement has even more significant impact than a mother's.

Conclusion

The research on fathering is indisputable: Fathers have a crucial role to play in the cognitive, social, and emotional development of their children.

An involved father is one who is engaged, available, and responsible. He is sensitive and supportive, nurturing and affectionate, and  comforting and accepting. Involved fathers are strongly attached to their children.

These fathers bolster their children’s cognitive development beginning in infancy and lasting through adolescence and teenage years. They provide their children with critical thinking, motivation, communication skills, and independence that will benefit them throughout their lifetimes.

Children are much more socially and emotionally developed when their fathers are involved. They are more empathetic, have better friendships, and are better able to handle frustration and disappointment. When they become adults, the children of involved fathers are more likely to have healthy and sustained marriages.

A father’s involvement can also go a long way toward preventing negative behaviors in adolescence and the teen years. Kids whose fathers are involved are much less likely to run into problems with the law, drugs, and teenage pregnancy.

It’s not only the kids who benefit from a father’s involvement. The mother-father relationship can flourish when a father is more involved, and the father himself can see significant improvements in his own life and happiness.

While many factors can influence a father’s involvement with his child, in most situations it’s possible for fathers to embrace and excel at their important job of child rearing. The keys are consistency, compassion, attention, and time. When fathers are able to provide all the above, everyone in the family is sure to benefit—dad included.

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