In one class debate that I regularly hold with my university students, we analyze the question, “Are Father’s Necessary?” Every time we discuss this, there is at least one student who talks about how once their parents divorced they lost contact with their father. Almost every one of these young adults mourns that loss. Some had fathers who were abusive or neglectful, and for them the feelings are more complex. They don’t want that unhealthy behavior in their life, but they long for the positive connection that they wish they could have had with their father. Some were able find father figures, men who were involved in their lives through the community, schools, sports and so forth who filled an important role in their lives.
As we celebrate Father’s Day in the US this weekend, I thought it appropriate to think about the ways that fathers and other nurturing adult males support child and adolescent development. Sometimes in all our conversations about parenting, fathers seem to get over looked.
Research has shown that fathers are important in the cognitive and emotional development of young children (Cabrera, Shannon, & Tamis-LeMonda, 2007). Fathers can help combat the stereotypical media portrayals of males for both boys and girls. Rather than being the stupid, insensitive foil to the sassy mom that is frequently shown on television, fathers can show their kids that males can be smart, nurturing caregivers. In this article Joe Kelly talks about how fathers can help their daughters develop body confidence through the physical play that fathers tend to do more than mothers. Researchers have even found that positive and strong attachment and trust between fathers and adolescents has a protective factor on the kinds of activities that adolescents engage in on the Internet (Lei & Wu, 2007).
There is also an interesting line of research that examines the ways that fathers can act as a buffer between children and a mother who is struggling with mental illness, emotional disorders, or adjustment difficulties. The point is, fathers have an important role to play in their child’s life, and it’s a different but complimentary role to the mother. So how do fathers maximize their opportunities to influence their child? Here are a few ideas:
- Get involved. Sometimes, because of the prevalent gender roles in our culture around parenting, fathers may feel that the mother of their child is the one who should be doing most of the care giving. They need to start seeing themselves as an important part of their child’s development.
- Get comfortable with parenting in your own way. Fathers and mothers, even when they are not living in the same home, need to work together to parent their children in a complimentary way. Both have their unique roles to play. Both fathers and mothers need to learn to accept that and embrace the importance of both roles. For example, in the Joe Kelly article I referenced, he talks about how fathers might be more comfortable being the one who does rough and tumble play with their children. I’ve also had students who talk about how they and their father loved to cook together, or read together. Whatever your interests, find ways to actively connect with your child.
- If the father in a child’s life isn’t living with them, it remains important to be involved. When parents separate and the children live with the mother, fathers often feel left out and slowly lose their connection to the family. I urge mothers and fathers in this situation to work together to maintain your child’s relationship with both parents. It will benefit your child in the long run. I cannot count the number of adolescents and young adults who have talked with me about how much they miss their relationship with their father once their parents divorce.
- What if a father is completely absent from a child’s life or is abusive or neglectful? That child still has the opportunity to benefit from positive adult male relationships. As the caregiver, make it a point to bring strong, caring men into your child’s life that may be able to serve in some ways as a father figure. I’ve had several male university students talk about how important this type of man is in their own development. Many had fathers who were not good influences, but through their connection with men in their communities, they were able to learn and grow in positive ways.
Cabrera, N.J., Shannon, J.D. & Tamis-LeMonda, C. (2007). Fathers’ Influence on Their Children’s Cognitive and Emotional Development: From Toddlers to Pre-K. Applied Development Science, 11, 208-213.
Lei, L & Wu, Y. (2007). Adolescents’ Paternal Attachment and Internet Use. CYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIOR, 10, 633-639.