Fathers of toddlers are not just breadwinners: they influence child development

Photo: Atze Dijkstra. Creative Commons.

Two-year-old children of fathers who reported parenting stress were less advanced on average in their cognitive development measured a year later. Two-year-old boys—but not girls—with stressed fathers were also less advanced in their language skills at age three.

Tamesha Harewood and colleagues at Michigan State University examined data from a large US study of low-income parents across 17 areas, called the Early Head Start Start Research and Evaluation Project, in which 732 fathers were interviewed when their children were two years old and again one year later. The development of children in these families was assessed annually at the ages of 1, 2, 3 and 4 years.

Children’s cognitive development was assessed using the Bayley Mental Development Index. Rather than an intelligence quotient (IQ), the Bayley index measures a “development quotient” that includes attention to familiar and unfamiliar objects; looking for a fallen object; pretend play; and the understanding and use of language and of motor skills such as grasping, sitting, stacking blocks, and climbing stairs.

Parenting stress was measured by asking fathers to rate questions like “my child rarely does things for me that make me feel good” and “sometimes I feel my child doesn’t like me and doesn’t want to be close to me”.

Why might fathers’ stress affect their boys’ language development but not their girls? (Other research shows the same pattern for mothers’ stress – it affects boys more the girls.) Perhaps this occurs because parental stress is related to a decrease in communication with the child, but girls are better protected because their own language skills are greater than boys’ at age 2, so they keep the communication going to a greater extent.

The researchers conclude that fathers’ parenting-related stress has direct effects on children’s development even when fathers aren’t their children’s primary caregivers. As a result, they say, “early interventions designed to address the effects of family risks such as poverty, unemployment and low education should include both fathers and mothers in their efforts” to reduce parenting-related stress.

Harewood T, Vallotton CD & Brophy-Herb H, More than just the breadwinner: the effects of fathers’ parenting stress on children’s language and cognitive development, Infant and Child Development (2016)