RESEARCH UPDATE

A study involving 80 fathers of toddlers found that father child attachment tended to be stronger when fathers spent time caring for their toddler on working days.

The strength of father-child attachment is not simply a function of the overall amount of time that the father spends with his child. A study of 80 biological fathers of three-year-olds—all working full-time, married and living with their children—found that the amount of time they spent with their children varied greatly, from minutes to hours per day. Yet this variation did not correlate with the strength of father-child attachment.

But when the researchers looked more closely at what fathers were doing with their children during the time they spent together, and when they were doing it, patterns started to emerge.

Father-child attachment was stronger when fathers were involved in caregiving with their toddlers on working days. In contrast, attachment was weaker when fathers spent workday time playing with their toddler.

The researchers offer a number of possible explanations for this pattern. A father prepared to do more for the child than just play despite a long working day may be communicating to his child that he is a trustworthy source of emotional support. That is, he may be indicating that he is more tuned in to the child’s needs. It is also possible that contributing to family life in this way on working days contributes to a better father-mother relationship, and that greater family harmony may strengthen parent-child attachment.

Conversely, a father who just plays on workdays may indicate less sensitivity to the child and mother alike. Play during the week is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does not appear to contribute to father-child attachment.

On weekends, by contrast, play is associated with stronger father-child attachment (as is child care, but only slightly). Weekend time with a child is likely to be more plentiful, less hurried, and more child-centred. Spending a lot of time in child-centered activities like play on weekends—when fathers presumably have more flexibility about how and where to spend their time—may be one way of  communicating  closeness to the child.

The researchers visited 80 family homes and conducted interviews and questionnaires to assess both how the fathers spent time with the child and the nature of the father-child attachment. They also observed a 90-minute play activity between father and child. In their analysis, the researchers controlled for the fathers’ sensitivity towards their children, so the results hold true irrespective of how sensitive the father was.

The type of activity – responding to the child’s needs or playing – by no means accounted for all the variation in father-child attachment. Other aspects of father-child activity that were not being measured could be influential, such as the type of play (e.g., rough and tumble versus doing a challenging puzzle). Other factors may be influential too, such as how the mother and father get on with each other.

Earlier research shows clear associations between father involvement and better child outcomes. This finding applies to three kinds of involvement – direct interaction with the child, accessibility to the child and the degree of responsibility for the child. But despite the fact that father-child attachment emerges in the same way that mother-child attachment does, far less research has examined what contributes to stronger father-child attachment.

Also because much research focuses on mothers, who traditionally spend relatively more time responding to children’s needs than they do playing with them, the role of play in parent-child attachment has been understudied. Earlier research has shown, for example, that a father’s sensitivity to a child during moderately challenging play activities – where the child depends on the father’s help – is associated with stronger father-child attachment. Further evidence for the importance of both play and caregiving, and the timing of when these activities occur, is reported this month on the Child and Family Blog.

Header image: Scott Sherrill-Mix. Creative Commons. 

References

Brown GL, Mangelsdorf, SC, Shigeto A & Wong MS (2018), Associations between father involvement and father-child attachment security: Variations based on timing and type of involvement, Journal of Family Psychology