Author: Mel WAGENAAR
Educational psychologist, Teacher and Mother, South Africa
Grab at being a dad – this is not a supporting role or for Father’s Day only! A dad isn’t just a background figure. He should also not be the sole voice of authority or used as a bogeyman threat for non-compliance. Conversely, dads ought not to be afforded superhero status either. Fathers should be the equal and other half to mothers in a parenting partnership – one that is lifelong and ever-evolving.
It really is alarming that so many childcare articles or “lists of tips” on child-rearing are aimed at mothers and exclude fathers. Therefore, I mindfully focus on the use of the word “parent” in my practice as a psychologist, unless there are more unusual parenting situations, for example, grandparents or other family members in the parenting role. The aim is to be inclusive, rather than exclusionary. The impact of fathers in the lives of their children is immense and immeasurable, but society has not always been kind to fathers – and dare I say it, mothers have not always been so either. Some mothers have deliberately kept fathers out of the realm of child-rearing, for many differing reasons. With more knowledge and research accessible to more people across the world, fathers are now taking an increasingly active role in their children’s lives.
When I undertake a background interview, I insist on seeing both parents prior to assessing a child who has been brought to my practice for that purpose. In this information-gathering step, the father’s perspective is typically different to that of the mother’s and can often illuminate the presenting referral reason. I have also discovered that when giving feedback and parenting advice and providing recommendations for the child’s optimal future functioning, fathers are as responsive to this advice as mothers. Parenting guidelines and programs given to both parents have been shown to be more successful than those delivered to just one parent. Research has shown that is also more effective to have both parents on board and physically together when medical professionals must confront issues and concerns, deliver treatment programs, and provide diagnoses and prognoses.
There are 5 key aspects of the impact that dads have in the early years that researchers have highlighted:
1. Enhanced brain development in infants: The outcome for babies who are exposed to a father who displays consideration, care and a gentle approach is immense in terms of the positive effect on IQ, language acquisition, secure attachment, motor development and sociability. There are fewer risk factors and thus more likelihood of their growing up to be caring, sensitive parents themselves.
2. Heightened feelings of security: The caregiver bond is strengthened when fathers take an active, practical, and physical role in looking after their young children. Infants and toddlers learn to trust both genders far sooner and engage in more active exploring of their environments. Bonding also happens much faster when dads adopt a shared role in the parenting responsibilities. Fathers who were interviewed for a study exploring their fathering styles shared that with increased responsibility and active engaging and caregiving came increased enjoyment in the act of parenting. Bonus!
3. Accelerated language development: Research has shown that the frequency of being read to by fathers has a link with an increased interest in books when the child is older. The impact of being read to and engaging with books is a well-known building block for enhancing language skills.
4. Better social skills: Young children who have been exposed to both parents having similar roles in their upbringing from infancy usually exhibit less “shy” behavior with strangers. Being exposed to just one caregiver or one parent limits the type of personalities that a child will have the opportunity of engaging with. Fathers who go beyond just providing financial support and enthusiastically pursue a positive relationship with their child will result in the infant or toddler communicating and learning better.
5. Improved behaviour: I remember being intrigued by a study that I came across in my undergraduate years that stated that fathers who adopted active roles with “difficult to raise” toddlers reported less issues and fewer concerns with the children later. Another study that piqued my interest was one that highlighted that a good relationship between dads and their very young daughters decreased the risk of anti-social behavior in the typically difficult teenage years.
Work roles and the workplace and the traditional economic roles in families have all changed. It is not just fathers who are the breadwinners and work outside the home. Many parents work from home and roles and “workspaces” are not as divided as they once were. COVID-19 has also had an impact on the world of work, with far-reaching societal implications. In your couples’ partnership, view each other as equally important co-contributors on the most exciting project that you will ever share in – PARENTING! This means that you will not necessarily parent as you were parented, and you may have different views to your partner about what all of this means. Communicate and collaborate and find a way to make parenting work well in your home.
Grab every opportunity to play with, look after, nurture, and bond with your child. I urge and caution all fathers to not assume the role of an “assistant” or allow being relegated to that role. This implies that the other parent is the main player, and you are then the supporting act. Be what I like to term “an active engager” in your child’s life from the moment they are born. The rewards are immense in terms of the intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development of your child.