Fathers’ involvement in and influence on the health and development of their children have increased in a myriad of ways in the past 10 years and have been widely studied. The role of pediatricians in working with fathers has correspondingly increased in importance.
In the decade that followed since the original clinical report on the father’s role was published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in May 2004,1 there has been a surge of attention and research on fathers and their role in the care and development of their children.
Three areas have fueled this increase are
policy initiatives, and
For Father’s Day, a recently published paper invites fathers of all kinds – whether living with their children or not, single fathers, stepfathers or any other kind of paternal figure in a child’s life – to up their involvement in the health, development and education of their children in a reliable and constant manner. The study’s authors underline the key role that fathers play in child development, a role that’s far from redundant compared to mothers’ roles.
The importance of the father’s role in child development is by no means a new discovery. However, over time, the authors of a recent study were able to observe that children who grew up with a father figure involved in their lives tended to experience fewer symptoms of depression, behavioral problems and teen pregnancies. Preterm babies were also seen to gain weight more easily.
The father’s cliched role as a more vigorous, risk-taking play partner was also corroborated. When playing with their children, fathers often encouraged them to explore and take risks, while mothers offered stability and security. Fathers who regularly play with their children effectively “protect” them from symptoms of anxiety and help develop their creativity, the study revealed.
Although mothers continue to provide the majority of care for the well and sick child, fathers are more involved than ever before.
Given the changes in the stereotype of the father’s exclusive role as breadwinner, child health care providers have an opportunity to have an even greater influence on child and family outcomes by supporting fathers and enhancing their involvement.
Children in a blended family may have both a biological nonresident father and a stepfather and some children do not have a male figure involved in raising them.
“Father” is defined broadly as the male or males identified as most involved in care giving and committed to the well-being of the child, regardless of living situation, marital status, or biological relation.
Although parenthood status is usually straightforward, circumstances in which parenthood status and parental rights are unclear may involve complex legal issues, including implications in terms of parental access to the child’s protected health information and ability to consent to care. Some states may legislate more restrictive definitions.
With very young children, fathers can have a positive impact on language development and mental health. For example, the study showed that fathers are more likely to use new words when talking to babies and young children. Involved fathers also encourage the development of harmonious social interactions and social competence.
Single mothers have no reason to worry, however, as an involved male presence – such as divorced fathers, grandfathers, uncles – can be just as effective, provided the person is committed to the well-being of the child and the role is assured long term.
Beyond providing financial support, the researchers remind fathers that it’s important to spend time with their children. Make time to share a meal together, go to the park, talk to children, read them stories, listen to them, etc. These activities are all the more important in new family contexts, such as step-families and parents living apart.