Policy should reflect fathers’ impact on child development

Photo: Aurelio Merenda. Creative Commons.

Research has discredited cultural beliefs about fathers and their roles in child development but these mistaken beliefs still shape modern family policy.

Many widely held cultural beliefs about fathers are wrong. Decades of research have proved that dads are not marginal, secondary, or dispensable in child development. Rather, the father-child relationship is of great importance. Dads’ care, as far as children are concerned, is not discretionary.

These findings require changes in policies that continue to reflect mistaken cultural beliefs – policies relating to employment, maternity care, poverty and family separation. Policy and practice should, instead, recognise and support father-child relationships and their beneficial impacts on child development.

We now know that young children bond with mothers and fathers similarly and that relationships with each parent matter a great deal to child development and long-term welfare.

Public rhetoric increasingly reflects these findings. But we’re not walking the talk.

Policy and practice, the workplace, family dynamics and the law often lag far behind. Child development suffers when relationships with fathers are undervalued. Millions of children are unnecessarily let down by institutions and parents themselves when it comes to fathering. We could avoid many of these failures.

New fathers and mothers are similarly able to support child development

Here’s what we know about fathers and about families. Both men and women share an intrinsic capacity to be good parents. Both are physiologically prepared for, and changed by, parenthood. New mothers and fathers are equivalently competent (or incompetent) at parenting. Any disparity in skills usually reflects women’s greater experience and opportunities to learn, rather than a biologically given capacity.

“We need to bring practice into line with rhetoric, to align what we do - regarding fatherhood - with what we know and what we say.”

There does not seem to be a distinctive and necessary paternal way of behaving that makes the father-child relationship qualitatively different from the relationship between mother and child. Mothers and fathers influence child development in the same (non-gendered) ways – they promote psychological adjustment when they are caring, loving, engaged, and authoritative. Boys need their fathers no more and no less than girls: there is now plentiful evidence that girls, too, fall behind when their fathers are absent, offer poor care, or are inaccessible.

Relationships: Attachment to both in the first year

Fathers become psychologically important early in their children’s lives by the middle of the first year, just as mothers do, and differences in the parents’ sensitivity influence the relationships. From then on, the quality of these relationships continues to be important for child development and throughout later life.

However, the security of attachment relationships is not fixed in early life. They can be improved, and they can also be damaged. There is ample evidence that relationship quality can change when children’s care and living experiences shift. These quality changes are closely linked to long-term child development.

father child relationship
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Child Development: What children need from their fathers

We know what matters to children. Healthy child development depends overwhelmingly on qualities such as the parents’ affection, consistency, reliability, responsiveness, and emotional commitment. It also depends on the quality and character of the relationships between parents and their intimates, and on the availability of sufficient economic and social resources.

Once these factors have been taken into account, the particularities of family structure (for example, single parents/same-sex parents, non-biological parents) have little impact on children’s development. Indeed, since the 1980s, it has been well established that children and adolescents can adjust just as well in non-traditional settings as in traditional families.

For example, fathers can have a very positive effect on their children, whether or not they live with the children’s mothers. The critically important factor is ensuring that children experience dad as a reliable source of psychological support. So having an appropriate amount of quality father time is crucial.

Recommendations for child development policy and practice

A consequence of these findings is that policy makers, practitioners, and the public in general should understand better how to promote strong child development through support for father-child relationships. At the moment, they sometimes fail to act in children’s best interests. Research evidence makes an overwhelming case for:

  • fully including fathers in preparation for birth and parenthood;
  • alleviating family poverty;
  • refashioning the workplace so that fathers of young children have the flexibility to combine their roles as earners and parents;
  • recognising and supporting father’s parenting in non-traditional as well as traditional families, and;
  • supporting post-separation arrangements that minimise parental conflict and maintain meaningful father-child relationships.
“Brief dinners and occasional weekend visits with dad are not broad enough or extensive enough to nurture father-child relationships after separation.”

Take employment, for example. We know that, with very young children, it’s important to minimise the length of separations from mum and dad and maximise the quality of interaction when children are with a parent. This is a gendered issue because, on average, fathers earn more than mothers do, so, with the family’s increased economic needs, there is extra pressure on dads to work longer hours. That can become a problem for their parenting. Such issues are far from resolved in many workplaces or by the parental leave system, so weakening investment in child development.

Evidence also highlights continuing failures to ensure that separated fathers spend sufficient quality time with their children. In a minority of cases, very limited contact may be appropriate because the relationship is poor or parental conflict is high. Generally, however, we know that post-divorce parenting plans which encourage regular participation by both parents are vital to building and maintaining the committed and meaningful parent-child relationships that children need. Brief dinners and occasional weekend visits with dad are not rich, broad, or extensive enough to nurture such relationships. In contrast, weekday and weekend daytime and night-time activities are important for child development at all ages.

As in the workplace, the legal, cultural and social supports for fathers’ contributions to child development are often not yet in place to make these arrangements the norm, even though most people would acknowledge their importance. We need to bring practice into line with rhetoric, to align what we do regarding fatherhood with what we know and what we say. Dads are crucial to children , just as mothers are. This truth should be reflected in what happens at work, in the home, in public services and in decision-making and supports around children after their parents split up. It often isn’t at the moment.

Policy Implications

Governments should review family related policies to ensure that the father’s contribution to child development is supported adequately.

Michael E. Lamb

Michael E. Lamb

Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK

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