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Fathers: Filling the Void to Help Create a Better You

What follows is a rough transcript of a conversation I had with a woman a few weeks ago while at my neighbor’s barbeque. (Background: She heard that I had two kids and my son had recently turned 5 months old). 

Her: So, what does your wife do?
Me: She’s a paralegal.
Her: Does she work full-time?
Me: Yes
Her: That must be really hard for her -- having to put her son in childcare all day. [note: she may not have emphasized the ‘her’, but I certainly heard it so]
Me: Yes, it is hard for us; we don’t like spending any more time away from our kids than we have to.

Admittedly, I may have stressed the plural pronouns in my response overly enthusiastically, but as someone who fancies himself an involved father, I couldn’t help but make it clear that childrearing or life decisions that affect our children are made by, and impact, both me and my wife. I get where the pro-mom bias comes from: for the vast majority of families, moms do fill the role of primary caregiver, and both the quantity and quality of time they spend with their children profoundly influences kids’ development. But, just because moms matter doesn’t mean dads don’t.

In a paper published last year in the Journal of Family Psychology,1 the researchers note that most of the work on child outcomes takes a moms’ and dads’ influences are independent approach. For example, researchers commonly assess moms’ behaviors when interacting with their toddlers and dads’ behaviors when interacting with their toddlers and then check to see whether dads affect kids’ outcomes (e.g., school performance) above and beyond the influence moms have (on average, they do). In this study, however, the researchers wanted to know whether kids especially benefitted from involved fathers when moms weren’t particularly involved. Or, as they put it: “..in families without a supportive mother (disadvantaged parenting environments), supportive father-child interactions may evoke children’s potential for adaptive socioemotional and cognitive functioning that would remain otherwise unexpressed.”

How did they test this hypothesis? They analyzed data from 723 children pulled from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a government-funded, large-scale longitudinal study of families that focuses specifically on predictors of optimal child outcomes. The kids were tracked from 1 month of age through the 5th grade, and included observation of the mothers and fathers interacting with their (approximately) 4½ year old children. Each parent interacted separately in an activity with the child. For example, dads and their kids were asked to build “a structure with chutes and ramps for marbles to run through” (moms and kids participated in similar, but different, activities). Free play activities with puppets or stuffed animals were also observed. The researchers coded the parents on two markers of “supportiveness”: (a) being a supportive presence (i.e., responding appropriately to the child and boosting confidence when needed; e.g., “you’re doing a great job stacking those blocks”), and (b) stimulating cognitive development (i.e., promoting problem solving, teaching principles, or doing things that helped the child gain new skills; e.g., “what if you stack them this way?”). Two markers of ‘school readiness’ were assessed in kindergarten and 1st grade: (a) academic outcomes (e.g., reading and math skills), and (b) social skills (e.g., being cooperative, showing self-control).

As predicted, more supportiveness by fathers’ was associated with their kids’ increased school readiness, but only when mom wasn’t pulling her weight in the supportiveness department. In contrast, supportive moms benefited kids regardless of what dad did. Interestingly, the effect of dads was strongest for the social skills outcomes, lending support to the idea that “fathers are particularly important for young children’s development of social skills…For example, father-child play is often thought to be more arousing than mother-child play and hence potentially more instructive for skills surrounding emotional regulation and conflict resolution.” That’s right. All that rough-and-tumble play and wrestling does more than damage the occasional vase (or limb); it may actually give kids practice interacting with others when emotions and heart rates are running high.

The researchers acknowledge that it’s not clear exactly why the kids benefit when dad is supportive but mom isn’t (versus when she is). It’s possible that the dads in these families may deliberately try to compensate for their wives’ lack of engagement, thus exposing the kid to a greater quantity of supportive fathering and parenting than he/she may otherwise get. As a result, dads in these situations fill the void left by mom, allowing their children to continue on a path towards optimum functioning. It’s also likely that dads’ support matters most when moms are unsupportive because in most situations mom is the primary caregiver. As a result, she has more opportunities to interact with their children, leaving dad with little room to improve upon when mom is already supportive. But, when she’s unsupportive, it’s dad’s opportunity to come to the rescue, so to speak. Such an interpretation raises an intriguing possibility: when dad is the primary caregiver (i.e., stay-at-home dads), could we expect the pattern of results to be reversed? Perhaps in these unique and understudied family contexts, support from mothers only matters when dads are unsupportive. It’s an interesting question, and one that will hopefully be addressed in future work.

Finally, I should note that even though the effect of supportive fathers is muted when kids also have a supportive mother, that doesn’t mean the dads are inconsequential in these contexts. There are likely other outcomes that this study did not measure that dad’s efforts may influence more dramatically, independent of mom’s supportiveness. Further, the researchers argue, in many cases the fathers may provide other important resources, such as financial support to the family, and emotional support to the mom (which very likely makes it so that she can maintain a high level of supportiveness with their kids in the first place). And, remember, supportive fathers also influence who their adult daughters find attractive.

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1Martin, A., Ryan, R. M., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2010). When fathers’ supportiveness matters most: Maternal and paternal parenting and children’s school readiness. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 145-155.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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