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A father’s influence on a child’s life begins at birth. New research has shown that fathers have an important and distinctive influence on their children’s well-being and that the presence of a nurturing father figure has an impact on every aspect of a child’s development: emotional, social/behavioural, and even cognitive. Infants just a few months old are known to score more highly on cognitive tests when their fathers are heavily engaged in their care. (When we speak of fathers in this regard, we mean “father figures” who play a consistent, daily nurturing role in a child’s life. Many times, stepfathers can also enjoy this kind of bond and impact a child just as much as a biological father.)
Children’s ability to form meaningful relationships with others is known in the psychology field as attachment. This skill in appropriately bonding with others begins with a baby’s first days in the world, as the newborn’s needs are met with care and consistent response, allowing a sense of trust to form. The baby begins to form a special attachment to the caregivers who show up predictably.
Often, the primary caregiver is the baby’s mother, but it’s also possible for a father to enjoy this kind of attachment bond.
A study in the late 1980's concluded that the three central traits of availability (presence), engagement (direct interactions), and responsibility (provision of resources) are what create a strong father-child bond. A later study named 15 specific means that engaged fathers employ with their children, including affection, teaching, providing protection, cognitive support, and participating in shared interests. Why is this so important? Having a deeply involved father makes all the difference in a child’s life, not just in infancy, but over time as the child develops into an adolescent and adult. Here are just a few of the positive ways that a father can impact the growth of a child:
Making children more likely to have confidence in novel situations and be more emotionally secure overall.
Minimizing the chance of their child being depressed or having behavioural difficulties in school.
Reducing impulsivity and aggressiveness, and increasing ability to self-direct (in boys).
In toddlers, increased capacity for problem solving and overall increased IQ before the age of 3.
Better self-esteem and lower risk of teenage pregnancy (in girls).
In adulthood, better chance of career success, self-acceptance, and general well-being
As well as greater likelihood of compassion, supportive peer networks, and happy marriages that last.
A longitudinal study over the course of 26 years showed that involvement of a caring father was the top factor in children’s ability to develop empathy for others. When fathers consistently spent time alone with their kids, those children grew up to be adults who were able to show compassion. Other research has shown that for school-age children, the involvement of a consistently available father correlates with greater academic success in addition to cognitive and psychosocial well-being (Howard et al., 2006). Having a father who is in frequent contact leads to better relationship outcomes for children as well as a reduction in adjustment problems.
Can a father’s love truly hold as much psychological weight as the love of a mother? Yes, according to experts contributing to the International Father Acceptance Rejection Project, who say that children’s behaviour is likely to be heavily influenced by their fathers if they perceive the father to hold a higher position of authority in the family. And my own experience as a family therapist backs this up. I see many adult men and women without nurturing or engaged parenting from their fathers, who limited their parenting to the role of being a breadwinner. I have had many women clients who have spent their lives searching for that elusive partner who can provide unconditional love, and adult men clients who are unable to experience empathy. In short, one of the best gifts you can give your child is to be emotionally available to them and to maintain a loving connection with their mother.
A Personal Story
I too, have a father. The close bond I shared with my father allowed me to be comfortable around boys and impacted me to the extent that some of my closest friends today are men. My father taught me fearlessness—how to face a boy with fists armed in Tae Kwon Do classes, fighting for the next belt of recognition. From his unrelenting need to stop at every traffic accident to rescue the wounded, I learned empathy. The bleeding wounded would inevitably end up sitting next to me in the back seat (which is probably why I can't bear the sight of blood. Thanks Dad). I can reflect now that perhaps my vocation of helping others came from him. My father instilled in me the thirst for knowledge; at dinnertime, every night for as long as I can remember, he would ask the same question: ‘What is one thing you learned today?’. His love and tenderness towards animals taught me kindness towards the helpless and vulnerable. His ease in displaying affection translates into my own frequent hugs offered to my adult sons.
Did he get some things wrong? Sure. I wish he had helped me feel more comfortable in my own skin as a girl when he clearly would have liked a boy, a son. I wish he hadn’t been so competitive, so that he could have taught me that losing is an option and inevitable. Failing is part of growing up, part of life. I wish he didn’t ask me to look after Mum when he was not home or available, so that I would not have felt responsible for her happiness. My Dad was not perfect, but he was good enough. Good enough is enough.
So fathers, you are important, very important to the quality of life your children will live. I hope you consistently honour yourself and your ever-so-important role as a father. Let your words be kind and encouraging, your looks approving, your arms comforting, your presence attuned to the needs of your children. You don't need to be perfect, just good enough. Through the gifts of your time, mind, and hands, you determine the future health and happiness of your children.