The role of a father has evolved from a science and research perspective. Fathers are no longer just babysitters or partner-replacements. Instead they play a significant role in their child’s development.
There has been a surge in recent research about the role of parents, and specifically of fathers in the development of their children. Starting from birth through to adulthood, there are many studies that are pointing to the critical role fathers play across areas such as cognitive, emotion, values and social development.
We summarise some of these studies to point out to many fathers that present-day children do not want an absent parent, or even a stoic one who thinks being a father is only about money and bottom of the pyramid needs.
It is a privilege for many fathers, especially first-timers, to witness the birth of their child. The child is just as lucky to have an attentive, engaged, interested father just waiting to welcome the baby. According to this study, babies that had skin-to-skin contact with their fathers in the first few hours of birth “…were comforted, that is, they stopped crying, became calmer, and reached a drowsy state earlier than the infants in the cot group.”
Common ‘wisdom’ and observations share that a baby tends to form stronger bonds with their mother. This is associated with forming secure attachment between mother and child. Fathers can also form a secure attachment with their child. This is highly dependent on being attentive and responsive to the baby’s physical and emotional needs. It is not – as often assumed – a function of the quantity of time.
MLSRA studies showed that children with a secure attachment history enjoyed a greater sense of self-agency, better emotional regulation and higher self-esteem amongst other outcomes.
Fathers continue to play their important role as their child grows emotionally, intellectually and physically into a toddler and thereafter a tweenager. Secure attachment continues to be the main approach for fathers to influence their child’s development.
According to studies, a father’s involvement in reading, spending time outdoors, and the use of a larger vocabulary predicted a child’s potential education progression.
The benefits of a present father include an active play style, sometimes referred to as a more ‘rough and tumble’ play. Child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett in his book Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child shares that a father’s more active play style and slower response to a child experiencing frustration can serve to promote problem-solving competencies and independence in the child. Active play benefits extends to social competence in school and a reduction in externalising behaviours. Rough and tumble play might make a mother anxious about possible injuries but there can be positive developmental benefits.
According to authors J. Fitch and David Davis in their book The Focus on the Family® Guide to Talking with Your Kids about Sex: Honest Answers for Every Age , “…fathers encourage competition, engendering independence. Mothers promote equity, creating a sense of security. Dads emphasize conceptual communication, which helps kids expand their vocabulary and intellectual capacities. Moms major in sympathy, care, and help, thus demonstrating the importance of relationships. Dads tend to see their child in relation to the rest of the world. Moms tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their child.”
Children tend to role model after their parents and each parent brings a different quality to the table. In a 26-year-long study, Richard Koestner and team (in “The Family Origins of Empathic Concern: A Twenty-Six Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58) found that father involvement was the primary factor in children developing empathy. Fathers that spent regular time alone with their children had children that grew up into compassionate adults.
It’s tough being a teenager, said every teenager.
This can be a challenging time for many children. In today’s hyper charged hybrid digital and real-world environments, children have to contend with negative peer influences, dealing with risky behaviour as well as mental and emotional health issues. Fathers are critical at this stage (as well) and can be both offence and defense when looking after our teenagers.
According to a Princeton paper on Resident Father Involvement and Outcomes in Emerging Adulthood, studies have found that a positive father-child relationship is associated with enhanced academic outcomes during later adolescence (Herman, Dornbusch, Herron, & Herting, 1997), although few studies have been conducted among young adult populations. Studies conducted with older adolescents suggest that levels of father involvement influence children’s academic and educational achievement (Harris et al., 1998).
Guess what? Secure attachment continues into teenage-hood as well. Studies show a strong attachment can result in stronger self-esteem and a lower tendency towards delinquency or externalising behaviours. The time invested in the childhood years continue to serve the teenager well.
These studies demonstrate that teenagers with present fathers deal less with depression and delinquency issues.
Fatherhood is a gift, and now the science agrees.
Older studies tend to focus on the role of the mother in a child’s growing years. This has shifted with many researchers recognising that fathers are and should be equal contributors to a child’s development. The journey of parenthood is a shared responsibility between both parents. Fathers can play a significant and complementary role to mothers. This role starts during pregnancy by being a good partner, and through birth and the various stages of the child growing up. Fathers can be a positive influence on their child’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social development in meaningful and valuable ways.
Editor’s note: While this article focuses on the role of fathers, we do not mean any disrespect to single-parent or same-gender families. We believe that children benefit from having their parents – of any gender – with them to influence and impact their development.