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Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important

Dad’s emotion talk has positive effects on kids

*First author is Matthew Fallon

The media tell us that love sports and beer and never talk about feelings. But what happens when these men become dads? Does it matter if Dad doesn’t discuss emotions? (Mom can take care of it, right?) Are we really losing anything by not expecting men to be examples for their children of emotionally well-adjusted adults?

Research says “YES, (NO), YES”. Here is one of many ways. Mental state language (MSL), talking to your children in a manner that allows them to relate their feelings and thoughts to the world around them, can have a lasting effect on their personal development (Brophy-Herb, 2014). Statements such as “the bear in the book is sad because he’s lost; wouldn’t you be sad if you were lost?” can help children to compare their thoughts and emotions to those of the people around them.

Holly Brophy-Herb et al. (2014) studied a group of children and their fathers, using wordless-book reading sessions to evaluate the amount of mental state language. Each of the fathers would read the wordless book to his child and researchers would record the type of language used:

  • Attributing emotions to book characters (e.g., the dog is happy that his owner is home)
  • Making suggestions about characters’ thoughts (e.g., she is trying to remember where she put her keys)
  • Tying book events into child’s experiences (e.g., They like going to the park just like you)

Children of Euro-American families whose fathers talked more about the characters’ emotions, thoughts, and desires in this task were more cooperative students at preschool age and were more able to self-regulate their emotions, thoughts, and drives (Brophy-Herb, 2014). High self-regulation at age 3 showed a significant effect down the road, helping them at age 9 manage difficult life situations, like maternal drug abuse (Brophy-Herb, 2014).

Most research on children focuses on the influence of mothers (it’s easier to get mothers into research studies) but these studies are informative for father’s role too. For example:

  • A mother talking about emotions, thoughts, and desires with a 24 month old positively predicts the child’s social understanding at 33 months of age (Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2008)
  • Mother’s discussion of thoughts and feelings with her young children (around the 2 – 4 year age range) is correlated with increased later understanding of “theory-of-mind” (the ability to attribute thoughts, emotions, intentions, etc. to oneself and others and to understand that the thoughts and beliefs of others may differ from your own) (Ruffman, Slade, & Crowe, 2002)
  • A mother’s comments about thoughts, feelings, and desires to her 6 month old infant predict the child’s security of attachment at 12 months old (Meins et al., 2002)

As mothers have historically been seen as the primary care-givers in most cultures, their higher level of interaction with their children throughout the day would be expected to have a more significant effect on their early development.

But most fathers still spend the second most time with their children and serve as major role models and guides. In fact over the past 10 years, the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled (National At-home Dad Network, 2014), meaning more dads are becoming the most common source of adult interaction that their infants receive. No matter who takes care of them, children learn from their experiences, so it only makes sense that children who have more exposure to discussions of thoughts and feelings would have an easier time regulating their emotions and developing theory-of-mind understanding. Fathers are an essential part of this learning.


Brophy-Herb, H. (September 2014). Risk and protective influences on at-risk children’s development and well-being. Pathways to Child Flourishing Conference. University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.

Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., Wainwright, R., Das Gupta, M., Fradley, E., & Tuckey, M. (2002). Maternal mind-mindedness and attachment security as predictors of theory of mind understanding. Child Development, 73, 1715–1726.

National At-home Dad Network. (2014). Statistics on stay-at-home dads. Retrieved from

Ruffman, T., Slade, L., & Crowe, E. (2002). The relation between children's and mothers' mental state language and theory-of-mind understanding. Child Development, 73.3, 734-751. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00435

Taumoepeau, M., & Ruffman, T. Stepping stones to others' minds: Maternal talk relates to child mental state language and emotion understanding at 15, 24, and 33 months. (2008). Child Development, 79, 284-302. Retrieved from:


1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)

2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)

3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)

4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)

5. “Mr. Mom” The Old Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)

6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)

7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)

8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)

9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)

*Posts are based on talks presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.


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When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)