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Key takeaways for caregivers
- Supportive fathers influence their children in significant ways, including the development of cognitive and social skills.
- The positive impact of fathers is greater when fathers’ relationships with mothers are strong and supportive.
- Fathers can help their children’s development through supportive and involved parenting and engaging activities, such as reading books and playing.
To fully understand the significance of a father’s influence on his children, we will explore four key areas:
- Father-child attachment and later development
- Father influence on a child’s achievements
- Father influence on a child’s social skills
- The mother-father relationship
1. Father-child attachment influences children’s later development
When there is a strong father-child attachment in the first two years, research shows a link with the child’s later social skills, cognitive skills (e.g., language, school achievement) and behavior. In this way, fathers influence their children’s futures.
These links between strong father-child attachment and later child development are greatest when fathers are more involved in parenting. This suggests that involved fathers have the potential to make a big difference in their child’s life.
Involved fathers have the potential to make a big difference in their child’s life.
2. Fathers have a significant influence on their child’s achievements
Fathers who provide primary care for their two-year-olds have children who achieve higher scores on academic tests. (The same is true of mothers.) Anne Martin and her team found that mothers and fathers who provided primary care for their children when they were two had five-year-olds with higher arithmetic and language scores.
Eirini Flouri and Ann Buchanan found that British children with more involved fathers had higher IQs at age seven than did children with less involved fathers. Other researchers have found similar associations at 11 years and 16 years.
Some researchers have worked to distinguish fathers’ influences on educational performance from the effects of other wider family and community influences. The links remain: Fathers who are supportive appear to promote their children’s language and cognitive development.
3. Fathers influence their children’s social skills
In a large British study, when mothers reported that fathers were involved with their seven-year-olds, the children were more likely to report being close to their fathers at 16 and to have less contact with police during adolescence. Other researchers have found even longer-lasting links – fathers’ involvement with their six-year-olds appeared to positively influence the feelings of their offspring when they were in their 30s, more than 25 years later.
High levels of paternal involvement in childhood also predict offspring’s social interaction styles in adulthood, as well as their married relationships, parenting skills, and mental health. The converse has also been shown – low paternal involvement and poor child-father attachments predict more psychological and social problems later.
Ross Parke and his colleagues found that a physically playful and affectionate father-son relationship predicted sons’ later popularity with peers. Other researchers have found that fathers who were more sensitive to their five-year-olds’ emotional states had more socially competent children three years later.
Researchers have examined whether fathers and mothers exert different influences on the social development of their children. It is very difficult to separate these influences from the many roles mothers and fathers play in different families. However, researchers have found that children who reported secure attachments to both their parents were more likely to report positive friendships than children who did not.
Mothers influence father-child relationships and fathers influence mother-child relationships.
4. The mother-father relationship influences children
The last 20 years have seen a lot of research on how family members influence the relationships of other family members with children. Studies suggest that mothers influence father-child relationships and fathers influence mother-child relationships.
A key influence on the father-child relationship is how supportive the mother is of this relationship, as well as the quality of the mother-father relationship.
The inverse is also true: Both the father and the mother-father relationship influence the mother-child relationship, but the influence is less. This may be because maternal behavior is framed by clearer conventions and role definitions, while fathers’ roles and behavior are more influenced by what mothers believe.
Mothers’ mental health also affects the father-child relationship, and fathers’ mental health affects the mother-child relationship. Sometimes the response can be compensatory. For example, when mothers suffer from postnatal depression, fathers often engage in more positive interactions with their babies.
The conclusion of this research is clear: A father who wants to be close to his children and positively influence their future should invest in relationships with both the children and their mothers.
- Lamb ME & Lewis C (2013), Father-child relationships. In Cabrera NJ & Tamis-LeMonda CS (Eds.), Handbook of father involvement: Multidisciplinary perspectives, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
- Martin A, Ryan RM & Brooks-Gunn J (2007), The joint influence of mother and father parenting on child cognitive outcomes at age 5, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 22.4
- Flouri E & Buchannan A (2004), Early fathers’ and mothers’ involvement and child’s later educational outcomes, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74
- Flouri E & Buchanan A (2002), Father involvement in childhood and trouble with the police in adolescence: Findings from the 1958 British cohort, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17
- Flouri E (2005), Fathering and child outcomes, Wiley