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Men and fathering develop through successful transitions to offer the closeness, engagement and connection needed for positive father-child relationships.
Father-child relationships reflect the nuanced kinds of involvement that children require from their dads and simultaneously highlight fatherhood’s central role in male adult development. That’s why we should focus more on the quality of the father-child relationship across time and contexts. The prize is more informed, enthusiastic and skilled fathers, and better-parented young people.
Typically, messaging about the father-child relationship is quite basic (concentrating primarily on physical involvement) and time limited (over-focussed around becoming a dad). As a result, it doesn’t make the most of what’s possible for children or men. Findings from research present a bigger vision of the father-child relationship – one that describes and mobilises fatherhood across the lifespans of men and their children as well as offering more sophisticated insights into what being an “involved” dad entails.
Men ask me, “How can I be the best dad that I can be?” I highlight three things, grounded in research findings, which always matter; investing in them always pays off. They are the “ABC of fatherhood”.
ABC of the father-child relationship
The “A” is for “affective” climate. This is the sense of love and constancy of a father being there. So a child feels: “My dad has my back. He really cares for me. I could call him at any moment and he would come. I can be halfway around the world and he is thinking of me.”
This affective climate is the most crucial foundation of a father-child relationship. I have worked with fostered children and orphans for 25 years, and there is no mistaking that kids carry themselves differently when they don’t know that they have a dad who cares for them. Being secure in a father’s love is the basis for a positive identity and the courage to explore and learn new things.
“The more a dad can connect his fathering to everyday events, functions, roles and contexts, the ‘more of a dad’ he becomes.”
“B” represents a father’s behavior. Dad goes to his children’s games, helps with homework, gets out with them and kicks a soccer ball. It’s the observable mark of an involved father-child relationship. When a father is positively engaged in these ways, his children tend to have better school attainment, smoother peer relationships, less drug use, delayed sexual initiation and fewer issues with the law and authorities.
Finally, “C” stands for connection. This is about a father’s synchrony with – and sensitivity to – his children, allowing dad to make use of teachable moments. A father who has mastered connection is good at reading his child’s mood. If he thinks his child needs more from him, he’ll give more. If he thinks that he’s overwhelming the child, he’ll back off. It’s what Edward Tronick, the American developmental psychologist, described as the “dance of parenting”, where we learn about turn taking and being tuned in to others.
Sometimes, I ask dads to describe the “greatest hits” of their fathering experiences. Notably, the A, B and C are always there, working together. Fathers are almost disparaged for having too much fun with their kids, but the ABC is right there when they are having fun. Indeed, I can look at most fathers and say, “See, you already know how to do this! You’re an expert.”
The reality is that these three factors or skills contribute positively to all relationships– father-child or spousal or peer – and they work intergenerationally at all ages for children. The challenge for policy and practice is to facilitate the father-child relationship such that the ABC – affective climate, behaviour and connection – are being enhanced.
Father-child relationship quality underpins men’s development
An added incentive is that developing these facets of the father-child relationship is not only good for the kids – it’s also a vital part of adult male human development.
Studies have demonstrated that involved fatherhood improves a man’s cognitive skills, health and capacity for empathy. It builds his confidence and self-esteem, while enhancing emotional regulation and expression.
For example, involved fatherhood helps men to develop their theory of mind and their executive function. Theory of mind is an understanding that other people have different experiences, perspectives and understandings. A close father-child relationship means that a father will typically be more empathetic to the outlook of children, a skill that he can then apply elsewhere, such as at work, better understanding the diverse perspectives of colleagues.
A close father-child relationship develops the dad’s capacities for evaluating, planning and decision-making – all part of executive function. Dads do this every day. It comes into play, for example, if they are home for only a couple of hours before the children go to bed but plan to use that time well, on an outing or helping with homework or going to a soccer game. That use of executive function to juggle resources effectively carries over into other parts of a man’s life.
An involved father will create or deploy interpersonal relationships and contextual resources to support his parenting. I remember a dad saying he never used to be involved in his community, but now he is in the neighbourhood association to campaign for speed bumps because he wants his children to be safe.
Personal health and emotional regulation improves around a strong father-child relationship
Many men think afresh about their personal health once they become fathers. A dad told me that he used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. He’d continued smoking after he got married. But once his wife became pregnant, he quit cold turkey. I’ve seen similar changes related to exercise, diet and substance use. It’s as though men become better versions of themselves for the sake of their children, even more so than for themselves or for their spouses.
A strong father-child relationship also affects emotional regulation. Men frequently say that they have learned to control their anger better or not express negative emotions, such as fear, so readily. They have often also recognised the need to express tender emotions which men, stereotypically, are said to find challenging. Again, their emotional development as fathers carries over into other contexts such as being less likely, for example, to fly off the handle with the boss.
“The more contexts that compete with positive involvement with his children, the more fragile his fathering identity becomes, unless he can bolster his stand against these things.”
Fatherhood gives men permission to play, possibly for the first time in decades. If a man without children enjoys building blocks or colouring books, he may be considered immature, but doing these things with children makes him a sensitive caregiver. A close father-child relationship gives fathers opportunities to re-experience childhood, reintegrate memories, and make sense of relationships with their own parents. When they get down on the ground with kids, it’s not only great parenting – they are also engaging in deep psychological development for themselves.
None of this happens overnight. A man doesn’t magically develop these skills through the birth of a baby. He achieves developmental gains gradually by successfully building the father-child relationship through a series of transitions that include, for example, different stages of child development, family crises, individual changes in his life, transitions experienced by other family members and historic shifts in broader conditions such as the economy.
It’s about more than becoming a dad
Clearly, it’s not just about managing childbirth and other stages in a child’s life. It’s also about what happens to father-child relationship quality when a family member dies, when dad loses or changes his job, when couples split up or when the family moves to another place.
Each transition changes the long-term fathering trajectory incrementally and slightly, contributing to different levels of commitment, fathering identity, behavior and sets of skills. The more a dad can connect his fathering to these everyday events, functions, roles and contexts, the “more of a dad” he becomes. The more contexts that compete with positive involvement with his children, the more fragile his fathering identity becomes, unless he can bolster his stand against these things.
Rethinking policy and practice can achieve a lot
There are clear challenges here for policy makers and practitioners. They must determine to support father-child relationships through common transitions within fathering and facilitate factors that are associated with positive adaptations. Parent educators and family service providers can provide information that will help families to anticipate and develop effective strategies for coping with transitions by focusing on father-child relationship quality across time and contexts.
Get dads through these transitions well and the rewards are men who become the best fathers they can be, with children, partners and communities gaining interdependent benefits.
Palkovitz R (2007), Challenges to modeling dynamics in developing a developmental understanding of father-child relationships, Applied Developmental Science, 11.4
Palkovitz, R (in press), Expanding our focus from father involvement to father-child relationship quality, Journal of Family Theory and Review