Past studies have shown that the children of fathers who more frequently control and discipline them are likely to do less well on measures of cognitive and social emotional development. A new study, however, finds that this is not the case for African American boys. For this group, greater control and discipline by the father is linked to higher cognitive and social emotional development scores when the boys are three years old.

The study used data on 4,240 boys from the larger and socially representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) in USA. About 20% of the sample was African American, 26% Hispanic and 54% Caucasian.

When the children were two years old, fathers reported on three aspects of fatherhood: warm and loving interactions, control and discipline, and home learning stimulation (e.g., reading with the child). When the children were three, they participated in cognitive tests (language and math) and test of social and emotional development (how much they engaged in a play exercise with their mother).

Fathers who showed warmth and who participated in home learning activities were more likely to have boys who had higher reading and math scores and who showed greater engagement with the game in the social and emotional development test. Paternal warmth predicted less negative behavior in the same test.

Only for African American fathers was there a link between increased control and discipline and a higher math score and a higher social and emotional development score.

This finding contradicts earlier studies, but those studies combined races and also sons and daughters, perhaps hiding variation by gender and race. There is a great deal of interest in the role that father-son relationships play in African American families, and other studies have shown that positive father-son relationships predict better behavior in school by African American boys.

This study also found that poverty reduced the link between paternal warmth and boys’ reading scores, corresponding with other evidence suggesting that affluence improves children’s literacy skills.

Though these aspects weren’t the focus of the study, the data also showed that the strongest predictor of boys’ cognitive and social emotional development was the level of education of both their mothers and fathers, and that the number of children living in the home was the strongest predictor of lower scores.

Header photo: Indiana Public Media. Creative Commons.