When we think of the relative importance of mothers and fathers to a child’s development, we often (wrongly) consider the mom’s role to be paramount and irreplaceable — and the dad’s involvement to be just an added benefit. But recent studies show how meaningful a dad’s involvement can be in helping a child to develop cognitively, psychologically, and socially.
Fathers who interact more with their children in the first three months of infancy can have a positive impact on their baby’s cognitive development and, later on, can reduce the likelihood of behavioral problems in school. That interaction also pays it forward into future generations: It increases the chance of that child becoming an adult who also plays a positive role in raising his or her own family, according to a recent study published in the Infant Mental Health Journal. Involved fathering, researchers have found, can also improve certain parts of your home life — by improving communication between dads and other family members, and providing a greater sense of commitment to the family. That, in turn, can lead to less troubling conflicts with children as they grow into teenagers.
“In my work with children who often lack at least one parent due to incarceration, I’ve seen both the struggles that children face in growing up without their fathers, as well as the amazing job that a single nurturing caregiver can do,” says Dylan Sears, a clinical psychologist. While Sears doesn’t study the father-child bond, per se, he knows how important that bond can be. “As a father of two, I know that if I do not take the time to cultivate healthy relationships with my children, then I’m outsourcing the job of role-modeling and will have little say in who or what takes my place,” he explains.
The importance of the father-child bond raises an important question: What does it really mean to be an “involved father”?
Researchers outline three important facets of paternal involvement: (1) engagement (a dad’s direct contact and shared interactions with his children), (2) availability (a dad’s accessibility to his child), and (3) responsibility (a dad’s providing of resources). Other research lays out fifteen specific ways that fathers can deepen their involvement with their kids — from providing emotional support to cultivating shared interests. A third study defines an involved father as one who is “sensitive, warm, close, friendly, supportive, intimate, nurturing, affectionate, encouraging, comforting, and accepting.”
Those subjective traits are hard to qualify, but in general, the standard is simple: Fathers are classified as “involved” when their child has developed a strong attachment to them.
Dads who feel that they struggle to build meaningful attachments should look for any opportunities to interact positively with their child in early infancy. One of the broadest studies, taken from a sample of 647 families throughout the United States, shows that a father’s involvement in regularly-occuring home-based leisure activities — think a standing family dinner date every night — has strong connections to family cohesion, adaptability, and overall functioning.
Even something as simple as sharing a book can help create positive emotions. That Infant Mental Health Journal study found that two-year-olds interacting with sensitive and less-anxious fathers during a book session “showed better cognitive development, including attention, problem-solving, language and social skills.” Vaheshta Sethna, Ph.D., a researcher involved in that study, says that a simple calming presence goes a long way. It’s important for dads to be there, but that doesn’t have to mean planning elaborate activities and stressing over it. Instead, it’s merely about presence.
Simply sitting down to read with your kids, heading outside with them, or even changing a diaper, all go a long way towards building vital bonds. And since the latter is sometimes challenging when you’re on an outing — only to find that the changing tables are only in the women’s room— Pampers is helping dads to be there for their children by helping install changing tables in men’s restrooms. It’s the little things — even changing diapers — that help build the most meaningful connections.