A primary function of parenthood is preparing children to face a complex world and succeed. Ideally, the child becomes an adult armed with sufficient tools to manage the unpredictable world, face the relentless competition, and find a measure of enjoyment along the way. We aide the development of a child in many ways, from providing a secure home-base to exposure to a wide variety of activities to stimulate cognitive development. Being a good dad by staying involved adds to the diversity of experience, giving the child additional resources during this critical time in their lives.
Yesterday while walking the family dog with my wife, I noticed a large difference in Scout’s behavior depending on who was holding the leash. I’m not arguing that one behavior was more acceptable than the other—just different. I’m more exact and structured during the walk; stay in front of me, keep focused. My wife is more lenient, allowing the furry little fellow to examine each bush, corner, and exciting smell. Structure and control versus exploration and curiosity; each experience playing a different and essential role in development.
“Structure and control versus exploration and curiosity; each experience playing a different and essential role in development.”T. Franklin Murphy
The purpose of this article is to examine the importance of a father’s role in child development in families with fathers. This is not an argument against the growing number of families without a father. Each family must contend with their unique configurations of gender, traditions, cultures, and psychological strengths and weaknesses. No matter the configuration, we can learn from studies, pulling elements that apply and disregarding parts that don’t.
The goal as parents, guardians of the next generation, is to provide enough stability and tools that children can continue their maturation and growth after they leave the nest.
Quality Time with Father and Cognitive Development
A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that quality father/child time was positively correlated with higher cognitive development (Cano, T., Perales, F., & Baxter, J. 2019). Many studies have already established the many benefits of mother/child time. Most notable is the research in attachment theory. Being a good dad is not a competition or distracts from the value of time a child spends with their mother but in addition to that time.
We live in an evolving society where a larger percent of mothers contribute to the family income. These changes magnify the need for shared parenting responsibilities.
Even before the dynamics of family responsibility changed, father’s role in child development had significant impacts. In George Valliant ‘s famous book Adaptations to Life, written about findings derived from a longitudinal study of men’s lives, Valliant discovered a large correlate between the psychologically healthy men of the study and the childhood relationship they had with their fathers. He writes, “Environment was important, and the emotional maturity of the fathers was closely correlated with how well their children turned out.” Valliant further attributed this positive outcome to the development of trust. “None of the men who were close to their fathers when young were paranoid in adult life” (1998).
Broken childhood father/son relationships frustrated the development of the child, impacting his ability to trust enough to explore, impacting childhood play and carrying forward into limited adult interactions.
The Activities Together Matter
The 2019 study highlighted findings regarding the quality of time a father spends with his children. Time alone was not sufficient, nor was simply relying on traditional father child activities. The greatest impact on the child’s cognitive development was time devoted to educational pursuits, custom tailored to the child’s current developmental abilities (Cano, et al. 2019).
I have recently been blessed to revisit some of my child-rearing younger years with the arrival of a grandson. This experience is much different. Since I’m now retired, I spend a few days a week with the little guy. I’m experiencing care giving from a new perspective, feeling the mental exhaustion from devoting constant attention to the rambunctious curiosity of a secure two-year old.
A child puts a significant strain on time and mental resources, limiting our ability to rejuvenate and recover. I get it. Being a good dad is not a thing of perfection. We’ll never provide the perfect environment, nor is any sage, psychologist or scientist wise enough to establish what exactly the perfect environment is. We do the best we can.
Integration and Cognitive Development
Daniel Siegel, in his wonderful book on mind development, suggests the goal is healthy integration of experience. Integration is the key process that influences a trajectory towards resilience or vulnerability (2008. Location 7946).
The child’s social environment is the beginning. This is where a child learns to processes experience, drawing meaning and learning from the falls and joys of existence. Healthy parents facilitate this process through purposeful interactions, co-creating with the child a healthy relationship with life.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we are father or mother, grand pops or caregiver. We must engage our children in constructive, healthy activity, building a secure base for them to explore the world, while simultaneously providing them with the essential tools to manage the jungle of our modern world. Put down the phone, close the lap top, and turn off the television and engage in stimulating activities with the young and developing minds of our children.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books. References retrieved from Kindle edition.
Cano, T., Perales, F., & Baxter, J. (2019). A Matter of Time: Father Involvement and Child Cognitive Outcomes. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81(1), 164-184.
Seigel, D. J. (2015) The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press. References retrieved from Kindle edition.
Valliant, G. E. (1998) Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press. References retrieved from Kindle edition.