Role of father in child development
It is now commonly accepted that childhood experiences significantly influence subsequent personality and social behavior of individuals. Parent-child relationships in particular are considered formatively crucial.
However, it is still often assumed that the central role in parent-child relationships, is and ought to be, of the mother – with the father at best playing a secondary role. Consequently, one finds relatively more discussions, writings and research on mother-child relationships and the role and importance of mothers on healthy and holistic child development, as compared to the role of fathers. In this issue, we have made a small attempt to readdress this imbalance.
You may wonder why this is important.
The role that fathers have been expected to play and have played has varied over time and cultures. For most of our history and in most pre-industrial cultures, it was a given that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Children grew up in joint families supported by an extended network of kin, neighbors and other community members, the roots of which ran many generations deep.
The father’s role was viewed as that of a patriarch – which etymologically means ‘one who rules the family’. He was seen as having the primary responsibility of not just ensuring the safety and survival of the family but also making sure that children grew up with an appropriate sense of values and skills which would allow them to become responsible and accepted members of their community.
With industrialization came large scale urbanization and the breaking up of joint households into nuclear-families. The father’s primary role now became that of a breadwinner – someone who was the main economic support for the family. And with the earlier support from extended family reducing or disappearing, it fell on the mothers to manage homes and raise the children.
In the 20th century, following the World Wars and the Great Depression, especially in the Western countries, social scientists also often highlighted the role of fathers as that of sex-role models, who were expected to model ‘masculine behaviors’ for their sons.
However, over the last few decades, with more and more women working outside their homes, either voluntarily or due to financial compulsions, the expectations from fathers have changed again. Studies on the role of father in child development over these decades, though limited, have given us many important insights in this area and have shown that fathers now play multiple and significant roles which impact the children directly and indirectly.
In relation to infants, for instance, studies have shown that fathers tend to not only engage in play but also respond to, talk to, scaffold, teach and encourage their children to learn, just as their mothers. And this ‘sensitive fathering’ is correlated with children’s cognitive and linguistic achievements at subsequent stages.
Studies among older children have shown that some children (especially boys) who grow up without fathers may have problems in gender identity development, school performance, psycho-social adjustment and in control of aggression. Children with highly involved fathers, on the other hand, tend to have increased cognitive competence, increased empathy, less sex-stereotyped beliefs and better internal control.
The reasons for this is perhaps not too difficult to guess. It is quite natural that when both parents assume roles that are less sex-stereotyped, their children grow up with less sex-stereotyped attitudes and behaviors. Two parents – who have different ways of interacting with and stimulating their children through explorations, talks, plays etc. – similarly, tend to have more positive impact on the cognitive and linguistic abilities of children, as compared to one parent.
In single parent households, the absence of a partner who can help out not just with child care but also in taking important decisions and providing financial and emotional support and care, can have a significant impact on the overall atmosphere at home and development of the child.
It is worth noting here that the involvement of both parents in child rearing is positive when it is voluntary – studies have suggested that in situations where the fathers involvement has been forced, say due to loss of job and hence his incapacity to support the family financially, the resultant resentment between both partners could lead to a vitiated family atmosphere and negative impact on the children.
Despite these insights from social scientists, the average level of paternal involvement has increased rather slowly over the last few decades. It is important to understand that this is for a variety of reasons.
Paternal involvement is influenced by multiple factors such as psychological (motivation, skills, self-confidence of father esp. in dealing with infants and small children), child’s characteristics (temperament, gender etc.), social support (for e.g. relationship with partner and other family members), community and cultural influences and norms (socio-economic opportunities, cultural norms) and institutional practices and public policies (work-place practices, childcare policies).
Thus, if paternal involvement is to become more effective, favorable conditions will need to be created by looking into these various factors. For example, studies indicate that though many mothers are overburdened with child-care responsibilities, a majority of them would want to retain the status quo with respect to ranges and types of activities in which fathers involve themselves, while they continue to overwhelmingly view breadwinning as a crucial role for husbands and fathers. Rigid and long work timings, lack of paternity leaves for taking care of young or sick children, lack of good quality and affordable child care and other cultural and institutional barriers also limit the average levels of paternal involvement.
It is clear that fathers today are expected to play many roles – economic, social and emotional. They are expected to be good companions and spouses, care providers, protectors, models, moral guides, teachers, and breadwinners. It is also well-established that greater paternal involvement has multiple direct (such as higher cognitive or linguistic abilities) and indirect (such as being a source or emotional and instrumental support to the mother, which in turn helps create a warm, supportive and nurturing home environment) positive impacts on the children and the development of their abilities, personality and behavior in the long run.
However, it is important to note that it is not just the length of time that father is involved but rather the quality of relationship that he shares – which the child, his/her mother and even other siblings and how competent and fulfilled he feels with his roles, that are more important. And these in turn are impacted by a host of psychological, social, cultural and institutional factors which either hinder or help the fathers in playing their multiple roles effectively.
Avinash manages Wipro Applying Thought in Schools, a social initiative of Wipro, which supports a network educational civil society organizations that are engaged in improving the quality of school education in different states of India.