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Father's Role in Early Child Development

by Louis WEiss, Ph.D.

A generation or so ago, the role of fathers was more narrowly defined. Dad "brought home the bacon," as the family’s main provider, was seen as the disciplinarian ("Just wait until your father gets home!"), and would take time to play when he could. But times have changed and fathers, for the most part, are more involved in raising their children—even their very young children. So, from time to time (often around Father’s Day), it’s useful to remind ourselves that fathers do, indeed, play an important role in the development of their young children. It is even better when we can show scientifically that the presence of a father in a child’s life is not only a positive experience for all concerned, but is actually beneficial to a child’s social, emotional and cognitive growth.

Research on the Father’s Role

The study of the father’s role in early child development has roots in the 1970’s when sociologists began to look at the impact of the women’s movement, begun in the 1960’s, on family structure, changes in roles in marital relationships, economic shifts in a couple’s earning power, and how the division of labor was shifting in domestic life. This, of course, included the raising of children. There were many psychological and sociological studies from the ‘40s and ‘50s which examined the mother/child relationships as a factor in child development. As the social demands for fathers at home increased in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became important to understand just how fathers fared as nurturers, caregivers, and shapers of developing young people.

Two outstanding efforts to understand and promote fathers as nurturers were put forth during the 1980’s. In 1981, Michael E. Lamb published The Role of the Father in Child Development (Warner Books, New York) and in 1987, Kyle D. Pruett published The Nurturing Father (Warner Books, New York). Both olumes report the findings of carefully constructed and thoughtfully interpreted research studies of men in relationship to their young children.

Fathers and Mothers Nurture in Different Ways

One consistent finding in the research is that fathers are not mothers! Studies of men and their modes of interacting with, caring for, playing with, disciplining, and talking to children revealed that men are not only capable of nurturing children, but they do it in ways which are distinctly different from women.

In play, an activity often associated with fathers, men tend to be more hysical and reciprocal as playmates than are women. Women tend to use more verbal interaction and direction in their play with preschoolers. Men often tend to structure play and interaction with children around a task, game, or project. Women tend to structure play and interaction around an idea or make-believe situation.

The effects of father/child play have been shown to have long-range implications for cognitive and social development, problem-solving skills, reciprocity and turn taking, and encouragement to explore a broadening environment. In caregiving activities, such as feeding or bathing, men tend to engage in them as tasks to be accomplished, while women tend to approach such activities as opportunities for verbal interaction. The differences in such approaches seem to have a beneficial effect on children. Two parents who interact with their children uniquely and, often, in contrasting ways, affords variety in the interactive experiences these children have and also fosters a capacity for these children to attach to each parent as a separate individual with distinct relational styles.

Fathers’ Involvement in Family Life

The studies by Pruett, Lamb and others looked beyond the parent-child relationship to study paternal involvement in family life, as well. Studies of families with fathers actively involved in both childcare and household responsibilities, reported preschoolers who showed increased cognitive competence, increased capacity for empathy, increased self-control, and a decrease in gender-stereotyped beliefs. Parents who assume less gender-stereotyped roles in the home and their work produce children who have less gender-stereotyped attitudes about themselves and about male/female roles. Findings of increased cognitive competence, in the early years, have been attributed to the involvement of two highly involved caregivers offering a diversity of stimulation and an opportunity for children to learn to interact with people having different behavioral styles.

In a family with a father who is often present and highly involved, hildren are more likely to see parents in supportive, cooperative roles. Children are also able to see parents make efforts to resolve conflicts as they arise from differences of opinion, opposing needs, or just plain irritability and fatigue.

Fathers and Separation

Not only do fathers serve as an additional attachment figure in children’s lives, but they also serve as a significant figure in the separation process, too. In infancy, fathers function typically as the first safe "other" that infants seek. As early childhood progresses and the world of the child expands, fathers tend to be more encouraging of exploration, more tolerant of frustration in children, and more encouraging of trying new things than are mothers. As the child’s need to be more separate and individual emerges, the different interactive styles of mother and father remain important.

We have come to understand that greater involvement of fathers in nurturing children does not result in the blurring of sex roles into one androgynous parent figure. Nor does active fathering of children require the mimicking of mothers. Men are able to provide uniquely for their children in a way that is enriching for both father and child.

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