University of Delaware Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences Rob Palkovitz studies father-child relationships across cultural contexts, developmental stages, and life transitions.
- The quality of a father-child relationship can be broken down by the “ABC of Fatherhood”: Affective climate, Behavior, and Connection.
- Involved fathers change in ways that are beneficial for kids, their communities, and themselves.
- Building a father-child relationship happens gradually, through a series of transitions as the child develops.
It’s tempting to think of father-child relationships in physical and temporal terms. Is dad affectionate? Does dad spend the time? These things matter — specifically to younger children — but two questions cannot encapsulate the quality or importance of a father-child relationship. New research presents a significantly more complicated vision of involved fatherhood and its benefits across the lifespans of men and their children.
The model that best explains how involved fathers can benefit from positive and consistent engagement with their children is known as the “ABC of Fatherhood.” This research-supported three-point plan for long-term relationships and personal success suggests that father’s emotional investments in their children always pay off.
This story originally appeared in a different format on the Child & Family Blog, transforming research on cognitive, social, and emotional development and family dynamics into policy and practice.
The “A” in the “ABC of Fatherhood” is for the “affective” climate. This is the sense of love and constancy of a father being there. So a child feels: “My dad has my back. He really cares for me. I could call him at any moment and he would come. I can be halfway around the world and he is thinking of me.”
This affective climate is the most crucial foundation of a father-child relationship. Being secure in a father’s love is the basis for a positive identity and the courage to explore and learn new things. And developing these facets of the father-child relationship is not only good for the kids — it’s also a vital part of adult male human development.
Studies have demonstrated that involved fatherhood improves a man’s cognitive skills, health, and capacity for empathy. It builds his confidence and self-esteem while enhancing emotional regulation and expression. Involved fathers often say that they have learned to control their anger better or not express negative emotions, such as fear, so readily. They have often also recognized the need to express tender emotions which men, stereotypically, are said to find challenging. Again, their emotional development as fathers carries over into other contexts. It’s good for their marriages and their friendships.
“B” represents a father’s behavior. Dad goes to his children’s games, helps with homework, gets out with them and kicks a soccer ball. It’s the observable mark of an involved father-child relationship. When a father is positively engaged in these ways, his children tend to have better school attainment, smoother peer relationships, less drug use, delayed sexual initiation and fewer issues with the law and authorities.
The benefits to this kind of engagement aren’t just long term for men. Fatherhood gives men permission to play, possibly for the first time in decades. If a man without children enjoys building blocks or colouring books, he may be considered immature, but doing these things with children makes him a sensitive caregiver. A close father-child relationship gives fathers opportunities to re-experience childhood, reintegrate memories, and make sense of relationships with their own parents. When they get down on the ground with kids, it’s not only great parenting – they are also engaging in deep psychological development for themselves.
Finally, “C” stands for connection. This is about a father’s synchrony with – and sensitivity to – his children, allowing dad to make use of teachable moments. A father who has mastered connection is good at reading his child’s mood. If he thinks his child needs more from him, he’ll give more. If he thinks that he’s overwhelming the child, he’ll back off. It’s what Edward Tronick, the American developmental psychologist, described as the “dance of parenting,” where we learn about turn-taking and being tuned in to others.
Tuning in changes men. A close father-child relationship means that a father will typically be more empathetic to the outlook of children, a skill that he can then apply elsewhere, such as at work, better understanding the diverse perspectives of colleagues.
A close father-child relationship develops the dad’s capacities for evaluating, planning and decision-making — all part of executive function. Dads do this every day. It comes into play, for example, if they are home for only a couple of hours before the children go to bed but plan to use that time well, on an outing or helping with homework or going to a soccer game. That use of executive function to juggle resources effectively carries over into other parts of a man’s life.
An involved father will create or deploy interpersonal relationships and contextual resources to support his parenting. It’s not unusual for a father who was previously uninvolved in his community to suddenly join a neighborhood association or take an interest in scouting. He wants his kids to be safe and now pursues his goals via pro-social behaviors. Interestingly, these pro-social behavior sometimes extend to himself. Involved fathers stop smoking. They diet. They go to the doctor. Sometimes they engage in these behaviors despite very poor track records regarding their own health. Again, they want their children to be safe and they are guaranteeing that safety by looking after themselves.
None of this happens overnight. A man doesn’t magically develop these skills or get awarded a seat on the condo board on account of paternity. He achieves developmental gains gradually by successfully building the father-child relationship through a series of transitions as his child develops, his family faces crises or deaths, and his own economic or emotional situation changes. Involved dads double down during transitions. The more a dad connects his fathering to life changes, the “more of a dad” he becomes. There are always events and situations that make it difficult for fathers to remain positively involved with their children; the critical benefit of involved fatherhood is that it puts dads in a position to handle happenstance while remaining focused on fatherhood. This is not only good for men, who have the self-assurance derived from a strong identity and family structure, but for their children, who know that dad has their back.
Father-child relationships are not, in short, just about the kids. Fatherhood has a central role to play in male adult development. This is why physical affection and time spent with children cannot adequately describe the success of a father-child relationship over time. These relationships are successful when they lead to change — when increasingly informed, enthusiastic and skilled fathers learn to parent secure and increasingly independent young people.
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