Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

The Importance of Fathers

I regularly hold a debate with my university students to respond to 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 to 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. It may be a different but complimentary role to the mother, or single fathers may find themselves working to provide their child with a full range of guidance.

So how do fathers maximize their opportunities to influence their child? Here are a few ideas:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 depending on their own personal strengths, experiences, and personalities. Both fathers and mothers need to learn to accept that and embrace the importance of each of their roles. Parents don’t have to do things the same way for both of them to be doing a great job of parenting.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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. The primary caregiver can make a point to bring strong, caring men into a 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 has been 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.

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8 comments on “The Importance of Fathers

  1. J
    June 17, 2011

    I’d like to add two things to this list specifically related to girls and their body images. Fathers should resist the urge to oogle women, like say, on TV or on the beach, etc. etc. I have friends with sons where the Dads think it’s cool to teach their young sons to oogle women in bikinis for example. Plus, when it comes to the catty behavior of judging women’s bodies, fathers doing this to pester their wives can have an impact on their children’s ideals. Young children can hear judgemental statements from a father as much as they can from a mother when it comes to look at an attractive, shapely woman.

    Also, the way a mother and father interact and show physical affection and refer to each other’s bodies in front of the children is important. my husband had some bad habits that I made him break when our girls came along. One was not grabbing at me while I’m busy cooking dinner. I’d tell him to stop and he’d persist. One day, when our girls were really young, I asked him if a boy was grabbing at one of our daughters would he want the boy to stop when she said stop or would he want him to persist. He got the message.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      June 17, 2011

      Those are good points. I think that fathers do need to think about the messages that they’re sending about female value and appearance. If they’re constantly harping about women gaining weight or critiquing women’s bodies, they will send a clear message to their children that this is of primary importance.

  2. Byron
    June 25, 2011

    This is an excellent write-up and a topic that certainly needs more attention! Bottom line is that children need their fathers!!! More importantly boys need their fathers, boys need someone to teach them how to be responsible, how to take care of their obligations, boys need responsible men to teach them how to become responsible men! During my internship experience I can count the number of fathers that showed up to IEP meetings (less than ten) and the majority of parent meetings and IEP meetings was with a single mother, a grandmother or a aunt.

    Fathers play an extremely important role in the development in their children’s lives. I think this is an excellent write-up!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      June 26, 2011

      Thanks, Byron! I agree that dads play a crucial role. And yet, they are often ignored or relegated to second class parent status. Dads need to see themselves as important in their child’s life.

  3. Fathers do play a huge role in a childs life – in different ways for boys than for girls but equally important. What dads need to do though is get to know their child and what makes them tick and help them grow into the person that they are meant to be.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      June 28, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, as always, Naomi.

  4. Mark N.
    June 23, 2012

    What a great article. As a father, I see the importance of raising my daughter with the viewpoint that gender lines can be blurred or be non-existent. Men can cook with their daughters, clean house with their daughters, and do grocery shopping with their daughters. Unfortunately these roles are still designated to women both in the media and, to my surprise, in real life. 

    As a male teacher of 4th graders, I am continually reminded of the kids that don’t have a significant male role model in their lives. It is unfortunate that many fathers and male teachers get overlooked in the media with the importance  they can make in a young child’s life, be it male or female. Thank you for writing about this issue Jennifer!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      June 24, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. As a school psychologist, I’ve seen the importance of male teachers, and I applaud the work that you do! Fathers are important. A single parent of either sex can do a great job, but if a child can have a positive role model of both sexes in their life, so much the better.

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