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The Greatest Challenge of Fatherhood

Is a father's love special?

A recent surge of research has begun to shed light on fatherhood. While earlier studies often focused on quantitative measures such as the amount of time a father spends with his child, current research is exploring qualitative variables such as how that time is spent. Quality parent-child interactions are characterized by helping a child while respecting the child’s independent efforts. The balance between being helpful and encouraging autonomy is achieved when a parent patiently stimulates active questioning, exploration and problem solving by the child. Allowing a child to experiment, even to fail, instills confidence, whereas being too anxious to help by interrupting, interfering, and doing something for the child conveys the hidden message that the child is not capable. The child grows in self-esteem when feelings of competence are based on achievements the child can take credit for. Such successes are possible when a parent allows a child to tackle tasks just within their ability and doesn’t set the child up for failure by imposing challenges beyond their skills or developmental readiness. Equally important are a parent’s reactions to a child’s efforts and performance. A child can readily tell if a parent is proud or disappointed, happy or frustrated, supportive or bored. When a child begins to perform under the pressure of wanting to please Mom or Dad, the former intrinsic joy can be replaced by anxiety or even fear.

Recent research has shown that the quality of interactions between a father and his 4½-year-old is related to his child’s later social skills. Early quality interactions with Dad were related to higher levels of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility and self-control in 3rd grade for both sons and daughters. Being an effective father does not depend upon financial resources or having a particular personality. Quality interaction was related to better social skills even when other variables such as socioeconomic status, the quality of the mother-child interaction, and the father’s personality were controlled.

Although both fathers and mothers can be sensitive and effective parents, some theorists argue that fathers serve a special role in their children’s development (Paquette, 2004). The widely held belief that it is a mother’s role to calm and soothe children when they’re distressed has been supported by empirical research. Even as adults, in our most desperate moments we reach out to our mothers for solace and reassurance. In an interview with Tom Brokaw on the seventy-year anniversary of D-Day, veteran Frank DeVita remembered: “When a man is dying, they don’t ask for God; the last words they say before they die is Mama, Mama.”

Our relationships with our fathers are often more complex. Fathers urge children to take chances and overcome challenges with confidence in the protection and safety net that Dad provides. In early childhood play, Dads excite children to take reasonable risks within the security of a protective bond. The different styles of parenting work together in complementary fashion with mothers providing a safe haven of comfort and consolation and fathers offering a secure base from which children can venture to explore and confront risks. But a father’s love often remains unspoken. As Reba McEntire sang in The Greatest Man I Never Knew: “The greatest words I never heard . . . He never said he loved me. Guess he thought I knew” (Leigh & Martine, 1991).

Love and unconditional acceptance go beyond quality playtime and constitute the core of an emotionally warm father-child relationship. Research has shown that father warmth can be especially important to daughters and can mediate the impact of early interactions on many of their later social skills. While mothers often tell their children they love them, fathers often demonstrate rather than speak their love. In an interview with Matt Lauer, Robert De Niro explained that he knew his father was proud of him even if his Dad never told him in those words. De Niro was right. He discovered that father had written in his private journal: “Thank you, God, for Bobby’s turning out so well.” With many fathers living separately from their children, it’s important to remember that the essence of closeness isn’t geography; it’s love. When asked if he and his father had been close, De Niro reflected: “you can be close to people and not always see them.” Research has shown that many fathers who have limited time with their child often learn how to “be in the moment” in order to make the most of the time they have together. Although most research focuses on the impact of parenting on children, it is important to recognize also that fathers are impacted by their children. Many fathers report that their priorities and values changed substantially as their child-father relationship grew. And those who became single parents learned how to supplement their fathering with what they felt their child needed from the mothering they missed.

We might want fathers to tell their children “I Love You” more often like mothers do. But it’s more important that fathers make their love known even without the words. As we embrace all types of diversity, we need to recognize the different ways of embracing children in warm loving relationships. As Dad runs alongside, gripping the seat of his youngster’s bicycle, he gives his child the courage to race into the unknown with the knowledge that someone loves him enough to stay near and trusts him enough to let go.

Further Reading:

Ashbourne, L. M., Daly, K. J., & Brown, J. L. (2011). Responsiveness in father-child relationships: The experience of fathers. Fathering, 9, 69-86.

Batcho, K. I. (2012). Childhood happiness: More than just child’s play. Psychology Today.

Brokaw, T. (June 5, 2014). Seventy Years after D-Day. The Today Show.

Franklin, D. (May 6, 2014). ‘You’re the real MVP,’ Durant thanks mom in emotional speech. KFOR-TV.

Friedman, A. (June 13, 2014). Spending on Father’s Day won’t match Mother’s Day. Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Lauer, M. (June 5, 2014). De Niro remembers his father. The Today Show.

Leigh, R., & Martine, L. (1991). The greatest man I never knew. On For my broken heart [CD, Track 8]. Nashville, TN: Mca.

Paquette, D. (2004). Theorizing the father-child relationship: Mechanisms and developmental outcomes. Human Development, 47, 193-219.

Pleck, J. (2010). Fatherhood and masculinity. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The role of the father in child development (5th ed. Pp. 27-57). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Webster, L., Low, J., Siller, C., & Hackett, R. K. (2013). Understanding the contribution of a father’s warmth on his child’s social skills. Fathering, 11, 90-113.