Dads can provide secure attachment, sensitive play and opportunities in the world that support children’s social and emotional learning.
Fathers are vital for development of children’s social skills, their relationships with peers and friends, their capacities to resolve conflict and their abilities to concentrate. Dad is also an important provider of social opportunities in the outside world. He is, in short, a route to resilience and children’s lifelong success at home and beyond.
These contributions to children’s social skills and thinking capacities challenge policy to prepare and educate boys properly for fatherhood. They require development of public services for parents that support fathers as well as mothers. The workplace should become father-friendly, and the media’s often negative depictions of fatherhood should be updated to recognise and promote paternal competence. Policy should ensure that fathers and mothers are treated equally within the law. Public policy and practice in most countries typically fails in at least some of these requirements, and sometimes in all.
Developing social skills
The role of fathers in social and emotional learning begins with infants’ early attachment. Having secure attachment with fathers as well as mothers in infancy bequeaths long-term benefits in terms of social skills. It is the start of a lengthy, continuous process that leads to other patterns of interactions, notably during play.
Children’s play with their fathers is no idle pastime. It is often the physical context in which children develop social skills they need to make and keep friends. It provides the guidebook for how to manage relationships.
Getting along with peers and making friends
In studies, we observed fathers who moderated their physical play to a pace that suited their children, slowing down when the child was getting overwhelmed, being sensitive to facial expressions that called for gentler play. Likewise, we observed that if a child was too unruly, dad might frown and the child slowed down. The children of these fathers – whose relationships involved mutual regulation – were more successful with peers. They had learned how to recognise and produce the emotional cues for managing relationships well. They knew how to avoid becoming too angry or sad or flat, and how to keep their emotions at levels that were not too exhausting. This gave them resilience.
How fathers play
Our studies have also shown that successful playful interaction with fathers in first grade is related to better concentration skills in children and predicts academic achievement in third grade. Good father play is also linked to social skills such as politeness and the capacity to display a positive attitude in the face of disappointment. In short, children gain a package of social and emotional learning in their interactions with their fathers that they can apply to a variety of situations.
“The dad dance – the to-and-fro of father-child interaction in which each grows sensitive and responsive to the other – is a rhythm that children ultimately transfer to their other relationships. We should help them get the rhythm right.”
Children who are securely attached to both their mothers and fathers typically expect that the world will be a positive place and will respond to them in positive ways. Well-adapted children typically have fathers who advise them about and exemplify how to repair relationships, solve problems and rectify past wrongs — cognitive templates for maintaining good relationships with friends and others.
Decades of work on how mothers and fathers resolve conflict also shows that after parents have a falling out, if they resolve things in a constructive way, the children will do better and be more able to manage their own emotions.
Mothers are, of course, very important for children’s emotional development and managing relationships with friends. However, their contributions often take a different form. They are more likely to provide the language or vocabulary of emotion and to deliver it in a didactic/teaching format. Fathers tend more to provide their social and emotional learning in an interactional/playful context and in less linguistic form.
Supporting social and emotional learning from fathers
The question for policy makers is how to make the most of fathers’ contributions to children’s social skills, which come in three parts: secure attachment and social interaction; advice on problem solving for relationships with friends or peers, and showing how mom and dad resolve their conflicts; and fathers’ role as monitor and provider of social opportunities.
Supporting secure attachment and good interaction means giving fathers as well as mothers a generous supply of information about parenthood. It also means equality for fathers as competent care givers in terms of time with children after divorce or separation.
“There is a welcome and positive focus in schools on preparing girls for careers in STEM. But we have not begun to prepare boys in school for the new space that is opening up to them as caring fathers.”
The medical establishment should welcome fathers during pregnancy, in the delivery room and in the postpartum period. We filmed new fathers being instructed about how to feed and hold a baby: just 15 minutes made a difference to their parental competence three months later. Healthcare practitioners should recognise that they are supporting a family unit, not just a mother-infant pair. They should also reach out to diverse families. The programs pioneered by Carolyn and Philip Cowan have recognised the wide range of people who need parental support. These include poorer families who might not avail themselves of a program, people who are incarcerated and those who have previously been abusive.
The rules around adoption should be opened up so it is easier for gay or single men to adopt. In the United States, far too many children, particularly those with special needs or from ethnic minorities, remain in institutional care, when there are eligible men available to parent them and give them the start in life that they need.
Thinking afresh about fathers
Governments must recognise that fathers are more than a paycheck. Evidence demonstrates that they can provide much more that is vital to child development than simply their financial contribution. Yet, in many countries, mothers on welfare are financially penalised if they have a cohabiting man in the household, on the assumption that these men are providing financial support. Often, however, a man may provide little income, but may help to stabilise a mother’s relationship with her children. In discouraging cohabitation, the state may be depriving children of the stimulation, teaching and social skills support that he can bring.
Family-workplace policies are a major issue. Rather than maternal or paternal leave, we need family leave, which reconceptualises childrearing as a shared enterprise and creates the flexibility for couples to negotiate who takes leave entitlements. This step is just one part of rethinking the workplace so that men have genuine access to benefits such as job shares, flex-time and part-time work that have long been more easily available to women.
Making life better for fathering begins at school. The segregation of roles for men and women is coming to an end at work and at home. So, for example, there is a welcome and positive focus in schools, galvanised at the level of the United Nations, to prepare girls for careers in STEM– science, technology, engineering and math. But we have not begun to prepare boys in schools for the new space that is opening up to them as caring fathers. We need to educate both boys and girls for a world in which boys don’t have to follow a patriarchal script. They can follow a more egalitarian script and still be masculine.
It’s time to stop underestimating and undermining fathers to the detriment of their children’s development and their social skills. The dad dance – the to-and-fro of father-child interaction in which each grows sensitive and responsive to the other – is a rhythm that children ultimately transfer to relationships with friends, peers and the adult world. We should do everything we can to help them get the rhythm right.