Pay and play: to enhance early childhood development, fathers should do both

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Play with dad could help bridge cognitive, social and emotional learning gaps among low-income children.

Please can we stop telling fathers just to pay for their children? They’re more than walking wallets. We should also emphasise that spending time with children and playing is just as important for early childhood development. That’s because play by fathers can have special, often irreplaceable qualities. Sometimes dad’s way of playing involves a bit of magic and fun that can transform lives, particularly for disadvantaged children.

So it’s a mistake to demand that fathers work round the clock — perhaps for just $7 an hour — and fail to offer them support to spend time with children. That’s especially true if the kids are asleep when dad gets home and there’s no time to just hang out or play.

The case for ‘play and pay’ contributing to early childhood development is particularly strong for low-income dads—and not only because the cash benefits of work are low. It’s also because the returns from playing with dad can be particularly significant for lower-income children, who may be a risk of doing poorly at school.

Our research shows how these dads try to square the circle of paying and playing. In one family, the father, working three low-wage jobs, would wake up his toddler late at night when he got home so they could play for an hour or two. Otherwise they wouldn’t have had time together from one Sunday to the next. The child was tired the next day, but this was the only way the father saw to manage his responsibilities both to support his child financially and to spend time with her.

“Rough and tumble with dad is associated with learning to regulate emotions and manage social relationships. Dads pose more questions … boosting vocabulary, language and verbal reasoning.”

Three factors explain why it’s vital that public policy makers prioritise fathers playing with their young children. First, play is important for children per se in the early years. That’s why it underpins institutional practice and curricula – play is recognised as a foundation of cognitive development as well as social and emotional learning. So if play is at the heart of early learning, it should also be a focus of parenting, whether by mothers or fathers.

Social and emotional learning

Second, research shows that play with dad can deliver elements of child development that mom might not offer as much or as often. For example, the rough and tumble with dad is associated with learning how to regulate emotions and manage social relationships. This learning is then transferred to peer relationships and is vital for a successful adult life.

Cognitive development

Fathers can also act as challenging communication partners for children from an early age, aiding cognitive development. They tend to speak to their children differently from the way mothers do. Dads pose more questions that require conversation. They particularly use wh-questions, such as ‘what, why, who, when’. These types of questions encourage complex responses from children, boosting their vocabulary and language. Such skills can then provide pathways for enhanced development of verbal reasoning.

These two factors, perhaps, are reason enough for rethinking advice to and support for fathers around play. But the third factor should be a clincher for policy makers who seek to reduce poverty’s impact on early childhood development.

play father development
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Father play is a promising place to start in any quest to break the link between poverty in childhood and impoverished education and learning. That’s because some, though not all, low income dads are extremely good at the challenging wh-question communications which so benefit children’s cognitive development. They can also be very good at the rough and tumble play that support children’s social and emotional learning. Indeed, in play, some low-income fathers are at least as competent as some of the most able middle-class fathers. Many low-income dads are invested and motivated to make sure their children have the best chance to achieve a good life.

This is good news for policy makers and social scientists who wish to bridge the stubborn cognitive development gap between low- and higher-income children that emerges even before kindergarten.

We know some causes of the cognitive development gap, such as less access to educational resources and lower educational achievement among parents with low incomes. They can be summed up as ‘lower human capital’. It’s often difficult to boost the levels of human capital among lower-income families, at least in the short term. But there is also tremendous variability – many low-income dads and moms provide high quality support for their children to ensure their optimal development.

Child development in low-income families

Not all low-income families are toxically poor. They have capacities to mitigate the effects of poverty on children’s cognitive development so the next generation has a real opportunity to thrive educationally. For example, a capacity for influential ‘father play’ exists in many disadvantaged families and when mobilised, the evidence shows, can be important for early childhood development. But this capacity can also easily be squandered amid today’s limiting public narratives and policy approaches to fatherhood. These tend to promote an erroneous attitude that playing with dad is marginal to child development and insignificant beside a father’s central role – to work and provide income for his children.

“If fathers are going to ‘pay and play’, we must rethink how ‘responsible’ dads are defined and how they should be supported.”

So what is to be done? First, fathers should understand that they have skills and responsibilities to play in particular ways with their children. They should also know that the way they engage with their children matters for their social, emotional and cognitive development. The particularity of their input means that it’s not a responsibility they can pass to mothers, other siblings or outsiders. They have something special to offer early childhood development through play. If they don’t use it, then their children might lose it.

Policy can support play with fathers

Policy has to change, too. It is hard to legislate for play. But policy makers can tell fathers, their partners and the public some facts from well-established research about early childhood development. And they can provide opportunities for father play. They can also offer policies and programs that include parental leave when a child is born or when a father needs time off work to attend to his child’s needs.

If the authorities insist, for example, that dads pay child support after parental breakups, but visitation time is not universally built in, then they’re letting the children down. If Head Start talks only about moms, it diminishes fathers’ opportunities to do a good job. All of this has implications about how, for example, leave arrangements for fathers are structured and how early years services are delivered. If fathers are going to ‘pay and play’, we must rethink how ‘responsible’ dads are defined and how they should be supported.

Policy Implications

Policymakers should ensure that fathers have the supports they need to develop positive relationship with their children: coparenting support, parental leave, flextime, and ensuring that when parents are separated they both learn to coparent positively and in ways that are beneficial to children.

Practical Implications

Ensure that programs reach out to fathers, too, not just mothers. Often when we say parents, we mean mothers. Programs should develop different strategies and reaching out strategies for fathers – saying to moms “your husband/partner is welcome” is not the same thing as saying “you, as the father of xx, needs to be here… your partner/wife is also welcome.”

Natasha J. Cabrera

Natasha J. Cabrera

Professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, College of Education, University of Maryland, USA.

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Original research and references

  1. Cabrera N, Karberg E, Malin J, Aldoney D The magic of play: Low-income mothers’ and fathers’ playfulness and children’s emotion regulation and vocabulary skills Journal of Infant Mental Health 38.6, 2017