Mom – and parenting policy – can learn from Dad

Photo: Gilbert Mercier. Creative Commons.

Low-income dads often speak and play with their children in unique ways that boost school readiness.

Ricardo is a committed father. But having dropped out of school in sixth grade, he’s virtually illiterate both in Spanish and in English. He has to work three jobs, cleaning tables, to make ends meet. So he doesn’t finish work until 11 p.m. By then, his two-year-old daughter, tucked in at 9, has long been asleep. He believes that being a good dad means providing for his daughter, but also being there for her—spending time with her. How does he have time to be a hands-on father? Ricardo wakes his daughter up when he arrives home. Then they play together for a couple of hours, until well past midnight, when the family eventually goes to bed.

This is just one of many stories my research has gathered of how fathers with low incomes, who often work long hours and struggle against the odds, still strive to care for their children against the odds. Their lives and what they do for their children contradict a stereotype of low-income dads as uninvolved and absent from their children’s lives. In fact, many are highly involved and have much to contribute in terms of care.

Blindness to benefits of fatherhood

The “absent dad” narrative is isolating and demoralizing for these fathers, who are doing their best in difficult circumstances, largely ignored and unsupported by social policies and programs. It has also blinded both researchers and policy makers to crucial benefits that such fathering offers in, for example, developing school readiness among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Policy – which focuses on fathers delivering child support rather than care – should recognize and promote the skills that dads can bring to disadvantaged families.”

Our studies, and those of other researchers, have identified two areas in which fathers from poorer families contribute significantly and often uniquely to school readiness in ways that are typically different from mothers’ contributions: language development and emotional regulation. In both these important areas, young children from low-income families often lag behind their better-off peers.  Policy – which often focuses on fathers delivering child support rather than care – should recognize and promote these skills that dads can bring to such families.

Dads stretch children’s linguistic abilities

Take language development. Several small-scale studies of low-income families by my team and others have shown that fathers talk to young children in linguistically challenging ways. We videotaped fathers interacting with their young children and measured the number and quality of words that they used. We found that they ask more “who, why, where and what” questions than mothers do, thus linguistically challenging their children and promoting more sophisticated linguistic development and vocabulary.

In contrast, mothers tend to use familiar language and ask fewer “wh– questions”. Fathers’ different approach is helpful, particularly for more disadvantaged children who are more likely to experience delays in language development. Researchers have had to revise their views of the challenging language that fathers often use. In the past, fathers have been berated as insensitive to children for not speaking to them at the correct developmental level. Now we have evidence that this type of talk is not insensitive but rather linguistically challenging. Mothers’ parenting practices are not necessarily the gold standard.

dad & daughter
Photo: Adrian V. Floyd. Creative Commons.

Playing with dad helps self-regulation

Another area in which fathers’ parenting may have an upper hand over mothers’ is in rough and tumble play.  Many dads are energetic with their children, pushing them to take risks and to set limits. When fathers do so, children learn to speak out in a safe environment with dad when what’s happening is too rough. They also learn to be careful with others if they themselves are being too rough. All this is about more than just play – dads are helping their children to read emotions and regulate their behaviors, training them in skills that will help when they enter school.

None of these practices are essential or exclusive to fatherhood. Low-income mothers can adopt more sophisticated language styles. Many also love a pillow fight. But based on our observations, mothers tend to do neither as often – or as well – as their male counterparts.

Research on the practice and the impacts of fatherhood on children’s development is still in its infancy: parenting research, like policy, has typically focused on mothers. However, it’s becoming clear that moms may have things to learn about parenting from dads, rather than always being the other way around. And policy makers may need to rethink their paradigms so that they base some of the best parenting norms and supports on fathers’ strengths and not solely on what mothers do.

Clearly, fathers can complement mothers in many other areas beyond simply supplying income. We know, for example, that the children of depressed mothers thrive better when their dad is more involved. Given the prevalence of postnatal depression and its impact on children, fathers may be vital in limiting damage in young children.

“Dads ask more “who, why, where, what” questions, stretching children and promoting more sophisticated linguistic development and vocabulary.”

Nevertheless, family policy typically focuses only on fathers’ ability and willingness to pay child support. That focus on money – and the corresponding lack of support for involved fatherhood – may contribute to father absence in low-income families. Some poorer fathers may think: “If I can’t pay, I can’t stay.” And mothers may believe that if he doesn’t pay, he shouldn’t stay.

Fathers don’t feel valued

The legal system chases down fathers who don’t pay child support. But it’s rare to find government programs or officials that reach out to dads, encouraging them to talk and play with their children – that is, to carry out the beneficial, responsive parenting practices that research has identified. We conducted focus groups where we asked low-income fathers: “What’s life like as a dad?” They talked about the many ways in which they care for their children, from knowing their children’s food preferences, cleaning their noses, and hugging and joshing with them to organizing their activities.

But dads didn’t feel valued in these roles. A father told us: “If my partner is missing and doesn’t pick up my daughter one day, they’ll get concerned. But no one is going to do anything if I’m missing from her.” This father – a young man with low-riding jeans – wants to be involved with his child. However, he sees how little people value what he can contribute in terms of love and care. That’s discouraging. It’s also failure of policy – which is presumably so concerned with the early years – to harness all the assets, including fathers, that surround young children in order to equalize opportunities, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.