Nearly 30 years ago, leading child psychologist Michael E. Lamb reminded us that fathers are the “forgotten contributors to child development.” Since then, much work has been done to explore the ways fathers uniquely contribute to the healthy development of their children. Scholars now know that boys and girls who grow up with an involved father, as well as an involved mother, have stronger cognitive and motor skills, enjoy elevated levels of physical and mental health, become better problem-solvers, and are more confident, curious, and empathetic.
Boys and girls who grow up with an involved father and mother, also show greater moral sensitivity and self-control. As they grow, well-fathered children are substantially less likely to be sexually involved at an early age, have babies out of wedlock, or be involved in criminal or violent behavior. They are much more likely to stay in school, do well there, and go to college.
How Father Involvement Improves Child Well-Being
There is a substantial body of research literature documenting the positive benefits fathers bring to the lives of their children. A review of studies on father involvement and child well-being published since 1980 found that 82 percent of these studies showed “significant associations between positive father involvement and offspring well-being…”
An analysis of over 100 studies on parent-child relationships found that having a loving and nurturing father was as important for a child’s happiness, well-being, and social and academic success as having a loving and nurturing mother. Some studies indicated father-love was a stronger contributor to some important positive child well-being outcomes.
Weinraub, in Fatherhood: the Myth of the Second Class Parent states: “There is no doubt that fathers are important contributors to child development. In particular, fathers significantly affect the development of sex roles, cognitive abilities and achievement motivation.”
A. School Readiness and Behaviour
Children who have an involved father in their lives in the early years, show up for school with more of the qualities needed for learning. They are more patient, curious, and confident. They are better able to remain in their seats, wait patiently for their teacher, and maintain interest in their own work.
Educational psychologist Paul Amato explains that this higher level of self-control in school children with involved fathers was also associated with many other healthy qualities, such as improved general life skills, self-esteem, and higher social skills.
Kyle Pruett, in Fatherneed, reports on another major scientific study that linked positive fatherhood involvement with:
- Lowered levels of disruptive behavior, acting out, depression, and telling lies.
- Obeying parents, being kind to others, and being responsible.
- Fewer behavioral problems in young boys.
- Girls being happier, more confident, and willing to try new things.
Father involvement has a unique impact on children’s outcomes, including cognitive development, achievement, math and reading scores, as well as behavioral problems. Pruett concludes: “Positive father care is associated with more pro-social and positive moral behavior overall in boys and girls.”
B. Cognitive, Motor, and Verbal Development
Psychologist Ellen Bing was one of the first scholars to explore how fatherhood impacts child well-being. In the early 1960s. She found that children who had fathers who read to them regularly were more likely to do much better in many important cognitive skill categories than children who did not have fathers who read to them.
Interestingly, one of the strongest benefits was a substantial increase in a daughter’s verbal skills. A study nearly ten years later, published in Developmental Psychology, found that both well-fathered preschool boys and girls had increased verbal skills compared with kids with absent or overbearing fathers.
Other researchers’ findings also point to similar conclusion:
- Ross Parke’s research shows that father involvement in the early months of a child’s life contributes to increased intellectual, motor, and physical development.
- Henry Biller, noted fatherhood researcher, finds time and again that father-involved children are more confident and successful in solving complex mathematical and logical puzzles. This may be because fathers tend to be more specialized in and have a higher interest in analytical problems.
- Norma Radin found that high father involvement contributed to higher mathematical competencies in young daughters.
- Michael Lamb found that preschool children who had involved fathers, had higher cognitive competencies on standardized intellectual assessments.
C. Security, Confidence, and Attachment
Infants who have involved fathers in their lives for the first 18 to 24 months of life, are more secure and are more likely to explore the world around them with increased enthusiasm and curiosity, than children who did not have close, involved fathers.
Father’s active play and slower response to help the child through frustrating situations promotes problem-solving competencies and independence in the child.
D. Making Wise Life Choices
Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that children who feel a closeness and warmth with their father are twice as likely to enter college, 75 percent less likely to have a child in their teen years, 80 percent less likely to be incarcerated, and half as likely to show various signs of depression.“
A white teenage girl from an advantaged background is five times more likely to become a teen mother if she grows up in a single-mother household than if she grows up in a household with both biological parents.”
E. Development of Empathy
A long-term study started in the 1950s found that the strongest indicator for a child being empathetic later in adulthood was warm father involvement in the early years of the child’s life. In a 26-year-long study, researchers found that the number one factor in developing empathy in children was father involvement. Fathers spending regular time alone with their children translated into children who became compassionate adults.
Kyle Pruett, after reviewing the large body of research on father involvement and child development, concludes “these findings take us beyond a shadow of a doubt” that fathers play an important and irreplaceable role in healthy child development. He adds: “the closer the connection between father and child, the better off they both are now and in the future.”
“The research is absolutely clear… the one human being most capable of curbing the antisocial aggression of a boy is his biological father.” —Shawn Johnston, Forensic Psychologist
The Problem of Fatherlessness
Just as it has documented the many benefits of positive father involvement, the research is clear on father absence and its negative consequences for children.
The United States is the world’s leader in fatherless families.
- Tonight, some 24 million children (approximately 34 percent of all children) will go to bed in a home where their father does not reside.
- Nearly 40 percent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their father at all during the past year.
- More than half of all children who do not live with their father have never been in their father’s home.
- Percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers (by race):
- African-American children: 66 percent
- Hispanic children: 35 percent
- White children: 27 percent.
- Single mothers are the primary caregivers in 84 percent of all single-parent families.
Fatherless Family Growth Over the Decades
- From 1960 to 1996, the number of children who lived in homes without a father or stepfather rose from 7 million to nearly 20 million. However, since the mid-1990s, the number of children in fatherless homes has leveled off
- The number of children raised by single mothers more than tripled between 1960 and 2000—from 5.1 million to 16.2 million.
- In 1960, only 4 percent of single mothers had never been married. In 2000, this number was up to 41 percent.
Attitudes Toward Fathers and Fatherlessness
- Sixty-four percent of Americans believe that the rise of single-parent families is very problematic.
- A poll conducted in 1999 found that 77 percent of Americans feel that upsurges in divorce and single parenting have weakened family connectivity.
- When asked to name the adult “you most look up to and admire,” only 20 percent of children in single parent families named their father, compared to 52 percent of children in two-parent families.
- Seven in ten adults believe a child needs a home with both a mother and a father to grow up happy.
- Father absence is an American problem that crosses racial, ethnic, and class lines. All across the United States, fathers are quietly disappearing from the lives of their children.
There is no doubt that fathers play a critical role in giving their children a healthy head start in life. Their strong presence and faithful nurturing can ensure that their children will grow up resilient and secure to become well-adjusted persons who can contribute to the community at large.
About the Author: Focus on the Family Singapore (FOTFS) is a local charity dedicated to helping families thrive. FOTFS aims to support every family with affordable and quality family life.
First published on 28-04-2011.