Parental leave promotes coparenting, a key to early child development

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Paternity leave is a good start to fatherhood, but well-designed parental leave underpins the sharing of care that boosts early child development.

Coparenting is arguably the most important ingredient that fathers bring to early child development. Children thrive best when parents share their care, research finds. Dad is a source of parental love, another pair of hands, and a partner in the joint enterprise raising children — usually with mom.

So any supports, such as paternity leave or parental leave, that aid a father’s involvement, as well his competence and confidence, contribute to coparenting and thus to early child development.

However, getting such supports right has proved a challenge for policy makers. It hasn’t been easy to design leave arrangements that genuinely help fathers to share in caring for their children, particularly early in the children’s lives. Schemes from around the world that were announced to great applause have often seen low participation by fathers.

Coparenting underpins early child development

Practices introduced in Sweden and other Nordic countries, however, have helped distil some of the ingredients of success. Good design addresses two powerful, traditional cultures – at work and at home – that may prevent fathers from taking leave and thus playing their role in the coparenting that underpins early child development.

Traditional attitudes represent men as indispensable in the workplace, even when they have fatherhood responsibilities. Meanwhile, they may also be seen as dispensable at home, even when there’s a lot of childcare to be done. Poorly designed paternity leave or parental leave are likely to have low participation because one or both of these traditional cultures gets in the way.

Promoting paternity leave and parental leave

How can we get more fathers to take up leave? The key is to set down paternity and parental leave in law because that sends a loud signal. But the legislation needs to be framed so that it empowers both fathers and mothers to be advocates for it, within the workplace and at home. It should, in essence, turn both men and women into cheerleaders for dad taking leave. (It also helps if the workplace acts as a champion, too.)

“Policies such as paternity leave and parental leave support the involvement of two parents.”

This empowerment requires clearly defined rights in the workplace for fathers to take leave. These rights are easier to exercise when they are accompanied by understanding among employers of the business benefits that spring from supporting fathers. For example, it helps when employers understand that encouraging leave taking by fathers is paid back subsequently in employee loyalty and retention.

Second, leave arrangements should offer clearly defined advantages to the whole family – not just to dad but also to mom. At the very least, when a father takes up paternity or parental leave, it should require minimal financial loss to the household and little sacrifice on the part of the other parent.

Evidence on coparenting

It’s important to understand why fathers are important in early child development. Research does not suggest that fathers are intrinsically necessary for healthy child development. Children can thrive without fathers. Likewise, they can do well without mothers. The well-documented successes of same-sex parenting, be it by women or men – highlighted by Susan Golombok and others – demonstrate these points.

Research indicates that coparenting, rather than gendered parenting, is a vital ingredient in early child development. For most children, Mom and Dad – or a variant including step-parents – are likely to represent the best chance of experiencing such coparenting. Policies such as paternity leave and parental leave strengthen coparenting by supporting the involvement of two parents.

Paternity leave

It’s also important to understand the difference between paternity leave and parental leave. Paternity leave is typically taken immediately around a child’s birth and is usually quite short — a matter of days or weeks. Fathers who take paternity leave can get to know their newborn, learn about infant care and share a precious time with the other parent.

early child development - paternity leave
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Parental leave may be taken by either fathers or mothers. It is designed to aid their longer term care of dependent children. It can last for months, even years, if taken flexibly or part-time and depending on the generosity of the leave regime.

Impact of parental leave

Parental leave normalises caring fatherhood in the workplace by making fathers visible and embedding fatherhood into company culture. It challenges notions that fathers are indispensable to work and dispensable to their children. Meanwhile, parental leave normalises caring fatherhood in the home, developing and establishing male competence in the absence of mothers, and highlighting fathers’ importance to early child development.

“Parental leave normalises caring fatherhood in the workplace by making fathers visible and embedding fatherhood into company culture. It challenges notions that fathers are indispensable to work and dispensable to their children.”

We know that parents bring many benefits to children, not only in hands-on care but by bringing income into the home. Parental leave functions – for both men and women – by promoting continuous connection to both work and to children. It helps each parent to contribute parental care and also access the earning and prestige that spring from participation in the labor market.

Parental leave design

However, the patchy success of parental leave legislation demonstrates that some key ingredients are required. A change in the law that simply allows fathers to take parental leave allocated on a family basis (so the mother effectively forfeits that time) – works poorly and results in low paternal participation.

Reserved time for fathers – “daddy months” – has much higher take-up. This “use it or lose it” parental leave turns fathers into the implementers of legislation; that is, it empowers them to advocate for their own leave at work and at home and thereby challenges traditional attitudes in both locations.

In Sweden, for example, the introduction in 1995 of a “use-it-or-lose-it” daddy month led significantly more fathers to take parental leave. There was a further sharp increase in the number of days taken by fathers when a second “daddy month” was added in 2002. Now a third month has been added, and we are assessing the impact.

Other design features are also vital for successful uptake of parental leave by fathers – flexibility, large numbers of days available over a lengthy period, high levels of pay replacement and application to those working in the casual and self-employed labour markets.

A great strength of well-designed parental leave is that neither mothers nor fathers experience themselves as being “losers” in the system. Both see it as “win”, so the explosive, often conflictual politics of gender are avoided.