While mothers have always been celebrated as being vital in the upbringing of children, popular culture and even science, until recently, has mostly ignored the crucial role that father’s play in the healthy development and success of children. Attachment literature, therapists and parenting experts alike have focused on the child’s relationship with the mother, maintaining that it is this relationship that predicts whether a child will be emotionally and mentally healthy and well adjusted in life. While this is true, it does not mean that the role of the father is any less important. Thankfully, research has recently begun to recognize the different but equally important role that fathers play in their family.
Fathers foster emotional intelligence and confidence in children
According to the American report “Fathers and Their Impact on Children’s Well-Being“: “Even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections”.
Playing with fathers has many important benefits for children
It is sometimes tempting for mothers to minimize the way that fathers interact with children, believing that they are left to the heavy lifting while the father “merely” plays with the children, getting to do the “fun stuff”.
Studies have found that this “fun stuff” and play is in fact very beneficial for the children. The same report found that: “The way fathers play with their children also has an important impact on a child’s emotional and social development. Fathers spend a higher percentage of their one-to-one interactions with infants and preschoolers in stimulating, playful activity than do mothers. From these interactions, children learn how to regulate their feelings and behavior”.
A good relationship with Dad is good for grades
The report went on to say that: “Children with involved, caring fathers have better educational outcomes. The influence of a father’s involvement extends into adolescence and young adulthood. Numerous studies find that an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement among adolescents.”
According to another study from the University of Illinois, fathers who take the time to ask about what their children learned in school and their day-to-day social activities and relationships have children who do better in school than kids who don’t have that kind of interest from Dad.
A role model for boys and a high standard for girls
There is no doubt that having a positive male role model in a father helps boys develop positive gender-role characteristics. Researchers at the University of Oxford have reported that boys who have involved fathers are less likely to get in trouble with the police as they get older. They are also more likely to be more in touch with their feelings and emotions.
In other words, it is fathers who model what a true gentleman looks like. Boys emulate the ways that their father leads the family and treats women, particularly their mother.
Girls also benefit from a close relationship with their father. Because he’s the first man she’ll get to know in life, he will set the standard in her mind for what to expect from men.
There are also some unexpected benefits. According to research from Vanderbilt University, girls who had close, positive relationships with their fathers during the first five years of life tended to reach puberty later than girls who had more distant relationships with their fathers. In addition, the University of Oxford researchers noted that girls who had more involved fathers were less likely to face mental health problems later in life. Genuine praise and admiration from a father can help his daughter grow up to be an independent, confident woman and this in turn will help her make good decisions about her own relationships with men later in life.
Mother’s Role in Father Involvement
Given that a positive relationship with involved fathers has so many benefits for the family, why is it that some fathers today are not more involved in family life and parenting? In families where women are not supported in their parenting role, they often complain about the lack of support from their spouses around parenting and house keeping chores. It is encouraging to learn then, that what mothers say and do can have a big impact on how involved and supportive their spouse is.
The truth is that in many families, the mothers are the gatekeepers to their children which means that they can consciously or unconsciously keep others from getting too close to the children. While many women may not admit this openly, but upon self reflection, they confess concerns about their husband’s competence as a parent and many will confirm that even when their husband’s try, they do not do things in the “right way”. Because these moms are not comfortable about their spouse in childcare duties, they do not give their spouses many opportunities to be involved.
What happens in these situations is that Dad feels the criticism from Mom, decides that he cannot measure up to her standards and gives up. This cycle is quite damaging for the whole family as it leaves Mom feeling unsupported, Dad feeling undervalued and unappreciated and the ultimate loss is that of the children in the loss of opportunity in developing a close relationship with Dad.
So how can mothers encourage Dad to be more involved with the children?
Given the mother-centric nature of current parenting trends, fathers often feel like second-class citizens. It seems that with so many voices telling them that they are irrelevant for the family, fathers get more withdrawn than involved. Conversations and surveys with fathers show that if fathers are conscious of the value they bring to the parenting equation, they are more likely to be involved. When mothers view their spouse as a competent parent, when they provide encouragement and expect and believe that parenting is a joint venture, the men are more likely to be involved with, and responsible for their children.
So if mothers begin to appreciate and acknowledge the fact that fathers bring something important, although different to the parenting partnership, fathers can be more encouraged to participate in parenting and be supportive of their spouse.
Research also suggests that there is positive correlation between marital quality and the level of father involvement in childcare responsibilities. In other words, if you are in a generally happy relationship, your spouse is more likely to be involved with the children. On the other hand, if there is a high degree of marital conflict, it will negatively impact the father’s relationship with the children.
It is easy to ignore nurturing the marital relationship once children arrive. With so much to do, lack of sleep and the tiredness, young moms often feel overwhelmed and feel like they are barely able to keep it together. Even during this time, if mothers can still give some attention to their primary relationship, the entire period of active parenting can be easier and more supportive.
Moreover, practicing conscious parenting means being mindful of the lessons your children are learning from your relationship. If you pay attention to your spouse and give priority to the marriage, your children learn valuable lessons in relationship building.
More recently research indicates that a mother’s positive relationship with both the father and his family was found to predict a greater likelihood of initiated and sustained high father involvement. In other words, if mothers work at getting along with their in-laws, their spouses are more likely to be helpful around the house and involved with the children.
What we focus on in life grows and this is no different in the parenting relationship. If we acknowledge and appreciate what Dad is doing rather than minimize what he is doing, he will be more encouraged to be more involved. It is much too easy to become critical of the lack of involvement and this often stops us from seeing the ways in which he might be contributing.
A study by Brigham Young University researchers finds that involvement in simple everyday activities, such as eating dinner together, watching TV, playing in the yard, and playing video games (yes!) are even more important to share with Dad than big outings or trips, although those contribute to children’s development as well. Children and youth whose fathers spent regular time engaged in everyday activities reported being very satisfied with family life.
Some women struggle with letting Dad do things his way when doing childcare or household tasks, which is often different from theirs. This of course discourages more participation in childcare. So many fathers I speak to say something along the lines of: “I can never do it right. She finds something wrong with everything I do. It is best if she does it herself since she is good at it and I am not.”
As we can imagine, feeling that you can never measure up or do something right is not a good way to encourage participation. On the other hand, when mothers and fathers trust each other to care for their children in their own way, both are encouraged, participate more, get better and more confident at their roles.
When Mom starts out with criticism about Dad’s less-than-perfect efforts, she is unknowingly signing herself up for a lifetime of doing it herself, unsupported. It is no wonder that so many women feel burnt out and resentful of the over functioning that they have taken upon themselves. One of the best lessons in parenting I learnt was: “You can either do it your way yourself or accept help from someone who will do it their way.” To Moms who find it hard to let go and think it is for the good of their children, it is important to recognize that children’s lives are more enriched through father’s imperfect efforts rather than a burnt out mother who tried to do everything perfectly!
There are also differences in the way that Dads interact with their children as they grow. While mothers tend to encourage and foster security, collaboration and ‘playing nicely’, fathers encourage competition, independence, and achievement.
Research also shows that there are unique and complementary ways that fathers contribute to the parenting equation related to how they play with their children (including it turns out watching video games!), how they encourage risk taking and how they discipline which are often very different from the way mothers do these same things. It is actually from these different ways of doing these things that children learn so many valuable lessons. Here is great article on the specific differences and synergies of Dad’s parenting style.
To summarize, Mothers and Fathers are both doing the best that they know how, given their unique styles. If both parents appreciate the different ways of doing things, lives of their children will be more enriched from the input and contribution of each. The support and partnership, will of course, also make the parenting journey that much more satisfying and joyful.