Engaged fathering usually means other family relationships are going well. That’s why it predicts successful development in children.
For more than 30 years, we’ve known about an intriguing finding: a father’s involvement early in development is often the best predictor of a child’s success later on – for example, in achievement tests at 16 or in avoiding a criminal record by the age of 25. In short, the more involved a father is, the better children tend to do in school and the more likely they are to avoid criminal behaviour, even nearly two decades later.
But what does that mean? You could be forgiven for concluding that raising children well is all down to the direct and wondrous influence of men upon their progeny. All that’s required is to pour a bit more precious paternal magic into a child, and, hey presto, the job’s done.
But child development is much more complex than that. For a start, children determine a lot of their own development, irrespective of what mum and dad have in mind. It’s not all down to parents. We also know that a successful upbringing depends on a host of subtle variants in multiple relationships – between parents and child, parent and parent, and with other relatives and key people who take part in children’s lives.
Fatherhood and other relationships
How, then, does all this fit in with the suggestion that a good dose of dad is all the medicine that a child needs? Looking a little deeper into the evidence, it becomes clear that paternal involvement is, in fact, not simply a good in itself, though it certainly has intrinsic benefits. It’s also a marker for the healthiness of all the other relationships that, together, make such a difference to human development.
“You cannot extract an essence of fathering – or, indeed, of mothering – because these relationships are themselves a complex product of a wider range of relationships.”
In particular, father involvement is typically an indicator of how well mum and dad get along. That’s because a big benefit to children from parental engagement springs from actions that relate to responsibility – taking care the lunch box is ready, that the child is safe. Fathers may do those things only when the mother encourages them or leaves a space for them to do so. Thus, although the fathering is important in itself, it often highlights what’s happening between mum and dad. The health of the couple relationship is, in turn, the strongest predictor of a child’s social and emotional development.
And if parents separate, this link between parental cooperation and father involvement is crucial. If dads remain involved in many ways, this typically suggests that the co-parenting relationship is going reasonably well, even if the romantic relationship has hit the rocks. Some parents may even hate each other’s guts yet share a commitment to parenting the children that is as solid as when they were a couple.
Impacts of fatherlessness
Understanding child development as a function of multiple relationships and networks also helps us understand fatherlessness better. It explains why children without fathers often develop in perfectly normal ways. Having a network of positive relationships can be harder without dad, but it’s not impossible.
Research shows that children in fatherless families typically do worse academically and in emotional and social development, compared with children in two-parent families. But many of those problems are caused by financial difficulties and continuing animosity between the parents.
This way of looking at parenting highlights that it’s a mistake to imagine that you can extract an essence of fathering – or, indeed, of mothering. There is no such essence, because both father-child and mother-child relationships are themselves a complex product of a wider range of relationships.
Too much focus on parenting classes
All of this should matter to policy makers as they try to support child development. Policy and practice run the risk of focussing simply on “training” mothers or fathers. This approach is based on the mistaken view that there is some sort of mechanistic relationship between parental skill and children’s outcomes.
My research has involved speaking to parents from very different circumstances and backgrounds. Most are more than “good enough” parents. Many feel a need for help in what they do, but that does not mean they need to take a class to learn how to do it.
“Policy should concentrate on ensuring that the networks vital to parents are aiding rather than impairing their child-rearing.”
Advice for policy makers
So where does research suggest policy should focus? It should concentrate on ensuring that parents’ vital networks are aiding rather than impairing their child-rearing. So it is important to ensure that employment, the law, education, and medical and social services all strengthen the relationships in which children and their parents function. Many of these services have been slow to recognise the importance of supporting fatherhood – for example, by providing leave from work or access to help when a child is ill or after a relationship breaks down.
The research also suggests that policy should support good parental relationships, helping parents when their relationship breaks down and requiring them to co-parent their children even when the romantic relationship has ended.
What should fathers do?
The message for fathers is to ensure that they maintain the network of family and other relationships in which their parenting sits. Too many men naïvely hand the maintenance of those relationships to their partners. Then, they are surprised to find that, in separation, they have lost their network when they most need it, leaving them – and the children – isolated and impoverishing the parenting that they can offer.