A new report from the American Association of Pediatrics shows that involved fathers have profoundly positive effects on their children’s cognitive and emotional development. This effect is separate and unique from the influence mothers have on children’s development. The authors’ conclusions are based on a review of several national longitudinal studies of father involvement and child development, along with data from the most recent census in 2012.
Fathers’ Influence Begins in the Womb
A father’s influence starts before his baby is even born. According to a study “assessing the impact of paternal involvement on racial/ethnic disparities in infant mortality rates” by AP Alio et al., when fathers are involved in an infant’s prenatal care with such contributions as accompanying mothers to the doctor’s office or quitting a smoking habit, mothers are more likely to receive prenatal care and the possibility of infant mortality decreases.
Once the child is born, an involved father remains important. Studies have shown that fathers and mothers interact differently with infants. When looking at “Games mothers and fathers play with infants,” MP Yogman found that fathers are more likely to engage in vigorous play, while mothers are more likely to help babies with basic needs, such as feeding, diapering and cuddling. Thus, babies learn to feel secure due to the soothing interactions with mom and learn to be curious and take risks through playful interaction with a male caregiver.
Early Life Experiences Influence Later Life Outcomes
At three years, father to child communication is a predictor of advanced language development. In his book, “Do Fathers Matter,” Paul Raeburn points out that even though mothers provide significantly more language exposure, they tend to tailor their word choice to a child’s existing vocabulary. Fathers, on the other hand, tend to introduce new vocabulary crucial to learning more sophisticated language.
Like other early childhood experiences, what happens at a young age has a profound effect later in life. A father’s involvement with children prior to age three is associated with greater academic achievement and emotional well-being. According to the longitudinal studies reviewed, when fathers were more involved with infants, the children had less mental health problems at age 9.
A 2006 study published in Family Issues, found that fathers’ involvement in adolescence is associated with less risky behaviors, like early sexual experiences or experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Teens are also less likely to struggle with depression if they have a strong adult male support.
A “Father” Can be any Involved Adult Male
The authors of the review take a wide view of who constitutes a father. Fathers can be living with their children or living in another residence. Fathers can be biologically related, adoptive or step parents. In some cases, a “father” may be a male relative, such as a grandparent or an uncle, who takes on caregiving responsibilities. The important factor is not how a male adult is related to a child, but that he takes on roles associated with involved parenting.
The authors also point out that same sex couples are in no way short-changing their children. Children of gay couples are comparable in development to children of heterosexual couples. Research shows that partners in same-sex parenting situations tend to specialize less than heterosexual couples, so that both parents spend more time with their children, have a more equal sharing of childcare responsibilities, and display less gender-stereotyped parenting styles.
What Fathers Can Do to Promote Healthy Child Development
Given that “fathers provide a unique, dynamic, and important contribution to their families and children,” strengthening the role of fathers is vital. Firstly, whether residential or non-residential, a father needs to make time to be involved with children. As of 2007, according to a study in Demography, almost 1 in every 5 fathers between the ages of 15-44 have children with multiple partners. The risk, then, is that a father’s resources – both in money and in time – are spread among multiple family groups. Fathers need to take the time to be present.
Secondly, just as mothers are given the advice to take care of themselves, the same advice may be even more important for fathers. Research shows that fathers have tremendous influence over family practices and dynamics. If dad is obese, the odds are high that children will be as well, even if mom is normal weight. If dad is depressed, children are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems. Depressed parents tend to have less physical contact (like hugging) with their children.
Thirdly, dads need to express their interests and parenting styles to mothers, teachers, pediatricians and others who provide care for their children. In the absence of expressed interest by fathers, doctors and teachers may direct questions, concerns, and ideas to the mother. Recognition of the unique and important contributions of all caregivers leads to improved child development.
Fathers: Key to a Child’s Healthy Growth and Development
When fathers take care of themselves, and take time to be actively involved in their children’s care at all ages of development, the children benefit in improved academic, emotional and social well-being.