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An extra 5 hours/week spent in solo father-child learning activity makes as big a difference to child development as having a university-educated father.
When a father spends time in learning activities with his child, the child is likely to do better on vocabulary tests, according to an analysis of data from a major Australian study that followed children over time. Furthermore, the association between parent-child learning activity and the child’s cognitive development is stronger for fathers than it is for mothers.
To examine the link between fathers spending time alone with their children at the ages of 4, 6 and 8 and the children’s cognitive development, the researchers extracted data from the study for 3,273 children. All the fathers were biological and living at home with the child.
The amount of time a father spent with his child overall was only weakly associated with better cognitive development, as was the case for mothers. A father’s spending time in structured activities (e.g. sport and music lessons) was more strongly linked with better cognitive development than was spending time in entirely unstructured activities. But the strongest correlation of all was for learning activities specifically, such as reading and playing educational games.
An extra five hours spent in father-child learning activities was associated with an increase of about one point on the vocabulary test, which has a scoring range of zero to 100. This increase is comparable to the estimated effect of having a parent with a university education.
The link between extra father-and-child learning activities and the child’s improved cognitive development was the same for both well-educated and less educated fathers. This finding was something of a surprise, because better educated fathers have more skills, more social capital, and greater language ability, and they tend to have higher expectations of their children.
Still, children with better educated fathers show better cognitive development overall. That’s because better educated fathers, on average, spend more time in learning activities with their children. This is a key reason that children from better educated households tend to have better cognitive outcomes.
The researchers offer a number of explanations for why cognitive development tends to improve when children experience more learning activities with their fathers.
Adding the father’s contribution to the mother’s provides greater diversity of experience for the child. Since children learn from observation and role modelling, two parents are likely to contribute more than one.
There may be other, less direct effects on cognitive development. When a father spends more time with his children, he is sharing more responsibility for childcare with the mother, which benefits the mother’s employment, the mother’s capacity to care for the child, and the mother-father relationship. Children’s cognitive development benefits from all of these things.
Why might the association between parent-child learning activities and the child’s cognitive development be stronger for fathers than it is for mothers? The researchers offer four possible explanations.
- An involved father may be an indicator of other benefits to the child, such as less parental conflict and more social capital, which amplify association.
- Mothers may be more likely to organise learning activities for their children even when they are not present, so that the correlation between “being there” and positive child outcomes is smaller for mothers.
- Mothers may be more likely to increase the time they spend with a struggling child, creating an association with cognitive ability in the opposite direction.
- Mothers tend to spend a lot more time overall with children than fathers do, so perhaps extra time put in by mothers has a smaller marginal effect than the same amount of extra time put in by the father.
The researchers draw attention to the fact that all fathers, irrespective of education, can equally contribute to improving cognitive development by putting in more time with their children and focusing on learning activities when they do
Cano T , Perales F & Baxter J (2018), A matter of time: Father involvement and child cognitive outcomes, Journal of Marriage and Family