Dr. Harleen Hutchinson, Executive Director, The Journey Institute, Inc.
The relationship between a child and their father is the fundamental core to forming healthy and secure relationships. The impact of this relationship starts early during the prenatal period and continues throughout development. Research has shown that when fathers are involved in their children’s lives from conception, then the likelihood of parental involvement increases. Unfortunately, we are living in a society when the playing field is not leveled. When fathers are viewed from two continuums, low income and middle class, there are huge discrepancies. Furthermore, low-income fathers find it very difficult to balance their responsibility as breadwinner and parenting and are often valued only for their financial contributions. This narrative has been further fueled by messages such as ‘deadbeat dads.’ However, when we examine the role of middle-class fathers, as a society we tend to value their nurturing and caregiving role in fostering bonding with their children. Unfortunately, the reality is that many low-income fathers work long jobs that pay near minimum wage, resulting in multiple jobs, often impacting the quality of the parent-child relationship. Mothers are often torn between the anguish of allowing fathers to remain actively involved in their young children’s lives and the exclusion of their fathers. However, research demonstrates that fathers who engage in the daily care of their children become attuned to their needs and can respond sensitively in interactions that lead to nurturing relationships. When fathers respond in a nurturing manner, this provides the infant or young child with a sense of security that fosters attachment. Furthermore, when fathers are actively involved in young children’s lives, it results in long-term benefits that are correlated with greater academic success as they advance into the preschool years.
So, how do we as a community shift our mindset to keep dads in mind?
First, we need to view the young child not only from the lens of the mother but through the lens of both parents, “mother and father.” Often when a mother and her young child are engaged in services, we unconsciously do not include fathers in the process or may find it difficult engaging fathers. However, most fathers want to be involved and tend to become disengaged and unresponsive when they are not viewed holistically as part of the family system. We need to remember that each system or component within that family system affects each other. As such, as a community, when programs are developed, we need to make a concerted effort to communicate the concept of parents as including both “mothers and fathers,” which are the core components of any family. Recognizing and acknowledging fathers for their efforts can contribute to their level of engagement in the process. When we practice keeping fathers in mind and including them in all aspect of emotional support that are being offered to the mother, then we are more likely to see a greater level of involvement in their child’s life.
Research has shown that fathers can have a profound impact on young children’s lives in the following ways:
1) When fathers play pretend with their child, the child’s reading scores will increase.
2) When fathers engage in rough-and-tumble play with young children, it helps them to regulate their feelings, which in turn, teaches them how to deal with aggressive impulses and physical contact in an acceptable manner. Rough and tumble play allows young children to learn about the boundaries and safety of risk-taking. The long-term effect of this skill will prevent problems with aggression as young children advance into the pre-school years.
3) When fathers are involved in young children’s daily routines such as bathing, feeding, diaper changing and play, young children tend to have better self-esteem and are easily engaged in social situations with peers.
4) When fathers are absent from young children’s lives and are not accessible or available, more specifically with boys, when they enter preschool, they are more likely to become aggressive with their peers.
5) When fathers are involved, young children are less likely to experience depression and the long-term effects of obesity and teen pregnancy decreases.
The early years in a young child’s life are a critical window of opportunities to help support fathers to actively engage in the parent-child relationship. This quality relationship has a long-term impact on young children’s development. Therefore, let's shift our mindset in the way we design programs and deliver services, by “Keeping Fathers in Mind.”
Cabrera, N., Volling, B., & Barr, R. (2008). “Fathers are parents, too! Widening the lens on parents for children’s development.” Child Development Perspectives, 12 (3), September.
Cabrera, N., Karberg, E., Malin, J. & Aldoney, D. (2017). The magic of play: Low-income mothers’ and fathers’ playfulness and children’s emotional regulation and vocabulary skills. Pp. 14-29.
Fagan, J., & Palkovitz, R. (2011). Coparenting and Relationship Quality Effects on Father Engagement: Variations by Residence, Romance. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, pp. 637-653.