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The Father Effect - Positive Effects of Involved Dads

Forty years ago it was a novelty for a father to be present at the birth of his own child. Today we would be shocked if instead of talking his partner through each painful contraction, Dad was downing a beer at the pub or nervously pacing up and down the hospital corridor.

Fatherhood in Transition

Feminist academic, author and father, Hugo Schwyzer , sees a real change in the way that the current generation of fathers are approaching their parenting role: “Many of them see fathering as a genuine vocation. They don’t just pay lip service to putting family first. They do it.”

While the shift towards shared parenting is real, a recent study found “seventy-five percent of men worry that their jobs prevent them from having the time to be the kind of dads they want to be.”  And when asked what single change would make the greatest difference in their ability to juggle work and family life, fathers named workplace flexibility as their top demand.

What is the Father Effect?
The research shows that fathers are right to want to spend more time with their children. Involved fathers have a significant and positive impact on their children’s development. And while it is a factor, the greater economic security that results from having more than one parent, does not fully explain the father effect.

Numerous studies have found that children who grow up in a household with a father show superior outcomes in intelligence tests. This is particularly marked in the area of non-verbal (or spatial) reasoning, which refers to ways of thinking that are important in fields such as mathematics, science and engineering.

The IQ advantage is most commonly attributed to the way that fathers interact with their children, with an emphasis on the physical (especially rough housing and outdoor activities) and play involving the manipulation of objects like blocks and Lego rather than language based activities. However, a study of Chinese parents found that it was a father’s warmth toward his child that was the most important factor in predicting a child’s future academic success.  

Emotional IQ
While much attention has been paid to the positive effect of fathers on their children’s intellectual development, a recent Canadian study provides new insight into the impact fathers have on their children’s emotional development.

Led by Erin Pougnet, the study found that children benefited most when fathers:

  • responded in a consistent manner to positive and negative behaviours
  • set limits that were appropriate and logical
  • explained the reasons behind those limits

According to Pougnet this approach “helps children to understand what is expected of them and feel secure that their parents will both keep them safe and encourage them to act independently when appropriate.”  

Previous research has shown that children experience an increase in negative emotions and behaviours when their father is absent, including

  • greater sadness, withdrawal and anxiety
  • increased aggression, impulsivity and hyperactivity.

In Peugnot’s research, girls’ emotional response to a father’s absence was more marked than boys’: “girls whose fathers lived with them when they were in middle childhood (aged 6 – 10 years) demonstrated less sadness, worry, and shyness as pre-teens (ages 9-13 years) compared with girls whose fathers did not live with them. The same was not true for boys.”

Reflecting on these findings, Pougnet says, “One hypothesis is that girls experience stress and negative emotions differently than boys when their parents' relationship breaks down and when they are faced with things such as discord between their parents, mothers' difficulties upon family disruption, and negative parent-child relationships.”

At the same time, Pougnet cautions that a home environment that is marred by high levels of parental conflict, particularly aggression, is highly damaging to a child’s development.  

In her view “this research does not indicate that children whose fathers do not live with them are necessarily put at a disadvantage. Because couple conflict in particular, was a risk factor for increased intellectual and emotional difficulties in children - it is preferable for children to grow up in a single person household than in a conflict-ridden environment.”

What Does the Research Mean for Mother and Fathers?

Parents can take heart from the growing body of research into the father effect, knowing that greater involvement by fathers is highly beneficial to children.

All parents, whether male or female, can learn from the positive findings on the father effect by providing children with:

  • consistent responses to behaviour, along with clear limits and explaining the reasons behind them.
  • play opportunities that stimulate their children’s non-verbal reasoning abilities e.g. blocks, Lego, ball games, rough housing, outdoor activities.
  • a warm and loving home environment that is free from persistent conflict and  seeking help when these problems cannot be resolved.

Access to parental leave and flexible workplace conditions should no longer be seen as a women’s issue – these demands are a matter of importance to men, women and children who all benefit when fathers are more involved in the care of children.                                          

Dr Schwyzer agrees that there is much room for optimism when it comes to the current generation of dads, “Our fathers loved us, but often lacked the vocabulary to express it and the skills to put that love into tender actions. This younger generation has those tools.”

References used in this article include:

Hugo Schwyzer, PhD, author, speaker, and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Pasadena City College.
'Beyond the Breadwinner: Professional Dads Speak Out On Work and Family', Dina Bakst, Jared Make, Nancy Rankin, A Better Balance, The Work and Family Legal Centre, June 2011
 Chen, Liu & Li (2000) 'Parental warmth, control, and indulgence and their relations to adjustment in Chinese children: A longitudinal study', Journey of Family Psychology, 14(3), 401-419
'Fathers’ Influence on Children’s Cognitive and Behavioural Functioning: A Longitudinal Study of Canadian Families', Erin Pougnet, Lisa A. Serbin, Dale M. Stack, and Alex E. Schwartzman, Centre for Research in Human Development, Concordia University.