Researchers who study how the relationships of fathers with their children affects the children’s social, emotional and cognitive development have criticised the “dyadic” perspective. This holds that the influence of the mother-child relationship on child development can be considered in isolation from other relationships, especially the father-child relationship.
How fathers influence child development
Fathers directly influence cognitive development, that is, how children learn. For example, children with more-educated fathers tend to do better in school tests. Fathers who talk more to their children have children with higher vocabularies. These children have more complex language skills.
Fathers influence children’s social and emotional development. The children of supportive fathers who engage with them in various activities, including play, are more likely to be socially competent. They are likely to have more positive friendships and be more able to control their emotions.
Fathers also indirectly influence child development. For example, they can improve the home environment through investment of time and money. They have more supportive relationships with their partners, which benefits their engagement with their children. Their relationship with the child’s mother influences children also. Conflict and stress in the relationship can harm development. Conversely, supportive team parenting (or “coparenting”) is associated with greater social and emotional skills in children.
Although fathers can and do provide the same supportive and emotional caregiving as mothers, on average they tend to care for children in different ways from mothers. For example, compared to mothers, they are more likely to tease their children. They are more likely to encourage them to take calculated risks and join in rough and tumble play. All of these things have been found to have a positive influence on child development. They need to be seen as an important part of the child’s care and development.
These comparisons are only tendencies, of course, and reflect social norms and personal preferences, not absolute differences. Many mothers engage in rough and tumble play, and many fathers provide emotional care. Both parents adapt their roles depending on their children’s needs. Research shows that a variety of caring activity is best for the child.
Why is fathers’ influence underestimated?
Traditionally, parenting research and practice has ignored fathers, neither considering their influence on child development and nor controlling for their influence when looking at the influence of mothers.
The study offers two possible explanations for these failings.
The first is the concept of a “primary” carer, referring to the relative quantity of time that mothers and fathers spend caring for children. If one parent is primary, then the other is “secondary”. If the father is not living at home, he can be considered “absent”, even if he is not. A parent who is secondary or absent is easy to overlook.
The primary caregiver idea is linked to the idea that attachment applies only to mothers and infants. In this perspective, the mother-child bond is “paramount” and above all other attachments. It is a short step to seeing other parents as just helpers or baby sitters, like other relatives.
Research has shown that the relative amount of time that mothers and fathers tend to spend caring for children is exaggerated in importance. The quality of the interaction is key.
The second concept that tends to push the influence of fathers to the edge of consideration is the ideas that they provide, rather than care. This leads to the conclusion that they do not spend enough time with their children and that their involvement does not affect children’s lives emotionally. Such a division of roles no longer holds true for a great many families. Also, even traditional fathers can relate to their children and influence their development.
The father’s influence should be considered in policy and practice to support children
Fathers are invested, both emotionally and financially, in their children’s lives. Their involvement is often an unresolved source of support for children, going beyond just providing and playing roles. Even if non-resident, they can contribute significant care and influence child development.
Cabrera NJ, Volling BL & Barr R (2018), Fathers are parents, too! Widening the lens on parenting for children’s development, Child Development Perspectives