Great dads matter. We now know that children of involved fathers grow up to pursue healthier relationships, hold down higher paying jobs, and suffer from fewer psychological problems. But measuring whether a parent is “good” or “involved” is tricky business. Are all stay-at-home dads automatically “involved fathers”? Is it all about quantity of time, or is it about quality too? Is there any way for a divorced or incarcerated father to provide “good” parenting from afar?
Inge Bretherton of the University of Wisconsin-Madison started asking these questions decades ago and then, in 1989, devised the Parent Attachment Interview. While unthreatening on the surface, the 22-question interview essentially helps scientists determine how much individual parents love their children. For instance, researchers have used the survey to identify how involved fathers impact toddlers.
The Parent Attachment Interview
Now the PAI is technically meant to be administered by professionals in a controlled setting. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try it yourself. Here are the 22 questions:
Could you talk a bit about your thought’s and feelings while you were pregnant with…?
- Did you talk to your parents and friends about having…?
- And what did they say?
- Could you describe your thoughts and feelings at the time when…was born?
- Do you remember what…was like as a person during the early months?
- Did you ever think then about what…would be like as a 2-year-old or preschooler?
- Let’s talk about what things are like right now. If you had to choose 5 adjectives to describe…what would they be? Now I’m going to ask you why each one came to mind?
- What are some of the enjoyable or fun things you like to do with…?
- Now, can you talk about some of the times when you have felt really close to…?
- Perhaps we could switch gears now. Could you tell me about some of the things in your relationship with…that you find more difficult, that is, things that make you feel a bit anxious, disappointed or frustrated?
Could you describe a few situations when…is:
- sad/upset about something
- scared of someone/something
- hurt or in pain
- angry at someone/something
- Could you describe a situation where…is affectionate to you?
- Could you describe a situation when…showed you that s/he was proud?
How about when you are sad, when s/he has made you sad, what does…do?
- What about when you are sad for another reason? What does…do?
How about when you are angry, when s/he has made you angry. What does s/he do?
- What about when you are angry for another reason? What does…do?
Could you tell me about the times when…acts up or misbehaves?
- How about when…refuses to do something or insists that you do it, but you are sure s/he is able to do it her/himself?
Would you describe what it is like at bedtime?
- What is it like when…wakes up at night?
What is the longest separation you’ve had from…?
- What are some of your thoughts and feelings when you are away from…for a weekend or longer (wait for response)…or away for a day or night?
- What are…’s reactions when you leave?
- How do you think…feels while you are gone?
- How does…react when you come back after a day, or a longer separation?
- When you picture yourself with…and your spouse with…, what are some of the similarities and differences?
When you think of your own mother, in what way is the way you related to her similar to or different from the way you related to…?
- How close was your relationship with her?
- (If the parent does not mention the father spontaneously, ask about the relationship to the father)
- In what way has your relationship with your parents has changed now that you are an adult and a parent yourself?
In what way do you see yourself in your child
- In what way are you different from one another?
- What do you think…will be like as a teenager or adult?
- What do you think your relationship will be like when…is a teenager or adult?
So…Am I A Good Parent?
The key portion of the PAI is somewhere in the middle of the survey, between Question #5 and Question #14. There, the interview focuses on the current parent-child relationship, largely asking parents to recall their childrens’ emotions or their own emotions. That’s crucial to determining attachment between children and parents, because studies have shown that, if you have a clear idea of what your child is feeling, that’s usually a sign of a strong relationship.
If you want to know whether you’re an “involved” dad, that’s the best place to start. Did you find it easy to describe your child’s feelings and what makes him or her unique? Involved parents tend to have strong, detailed answers to questions 5-14. Then again, these interviews are usually reviewed by trained staff who have no particular love for the interviewees. It’s obviously difficult to complete a non-biased assessment of yourself with only vague guidelines. So the results won’t tell you whether you’re a good or bad parent. But they can help alert you to potential weaknesses in your developing relationship with your kids, so you can make repairs.
How Can I Become A More Involved Father?
So you had no idea how to answer most of the above questions, and your cursory self-evaluation suggests that you’re not “involved” enough to meet scientific standards. Now what?
There’s still hope.
If you live far away from your children, keeping in regular contact can forge unconventional but still close relationships. “Writing letters, phone calls — even if you’re not in physical proximity, knowing your dad cares and wants to be involved to the extent that they can is really important,” Marcy Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, once told Fatherly. And for fathers who are around but just don’t feel that closeness, Carlson stresses that simply existing in the same home as your child is not enough. “The quantity of interaction doesn’t really benefit kids,” she said. “But if you have more high-quality, engaged parenting that does seem to be positively related to outcomes for children.” That means showing up to soccer practice, helping with homework, and taking a genuine interest in your child’s activities — with warmth and love, of course.
So stop ignoring your kids so you can take online surveys to determine whether or not you’re an “involved” dad. Instead, get on the floor with your kid — and become one.