How the Pandemic is Strengthening Father-Child Relationships

A silver lining gleams from the pandemic storm cloud.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

On a recent telehealth check-up with a 6-year-old patient and her father, I asked her whether she missed school. “I really want to go back to school, but I don’t want my dad to go back to work.” When her dad asked why, she turned to him and said, “Now I always know where you are. I like it when you are home to help me and play with me. That will stop if you go back to work.” Her dad put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, Pumpkin, Dad has learned his lesson,” as he smiled at the laptop camera.

The lesson is that meaningful relationships with our children grow in the space created by being with them, and there is no proxy. Who knew that COVID-19 would create such a space, especially for fathers?

Men’s roles as co-parents have changed significantly over the decades as increasing numbers of women have joined the workforce. Much of that change is by necessity, and some is by choice, with many men hoping to be closer to their children than they were to their fathers. Statistically, mothers still bear more of the childcare burden, but the trends toward more equity have been steady for decades.

Enter the pandemic. Anecdotally, I’ve seen many families with fathers who are now closer to their children than they were five months ago, and the mothers — and their children — are happy to have them feeling that way. Some very fresh science tells us this is not just anecdotal. The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project (Weissbourd et al, 2020) conducted two online surveys of more than 1,300 parents across a broad spectrum of families in the last two months and found strong trends:

  • 68% of fathers feel closer or much closer to their children since the pandemic, and less than 2% feel less close.
  • This trend holds regardless of class, race, political affiliation, or education.

The Harvard project wanted to know how fathers were feeling closer, so they conducted another survey with a similar population to drill down.

  • Fathers are having more meaningful conversations with their children, especially about things that are important to them, and consequently discovering new and shared interests.
  • They are getting to know their children better as people and appreciating them more as a result.
  • Fathers are sharing more of their own lives, perspectives, and feelings with their children.

Like Pumpkin, we, too, wonder what will survive of this trend and all its benefits for children’s development, not to mention co-parenting bliss, after the longed-for vaccine arrives. Here are some suggestions to ensure this bond survives:

  • Establish and then continue routines of special times. Talk at your child’s wake-up time or before sleep, check in when you return from work or shut down your computer and find places to talk (the big chair, the front steps, the porch swing, etc.) that are yours.
  • Make use of the authentic understanding of what your child needs to discipline in a calm and authoritative manner. Dads earn this understanding by being there, as they have during the pandemic. Using it well earns respect from children and partners alike.
  • Play puzzles and games that you teach each other, and keep running tabs of your scores, implying this game will continue.
  • Experiment with foods and cooking gigs that are connected to your time together (the healthier, the better).
  • Let Dad acknowledge to himself ("learn his lesson") how deeply enriching active fathering is and what a boon it is to his health — emotional, mental, and physical.

References

Weissbourd, R., Batanova, M., McIntyre, J. & Torres, E. (2020). How the pandemic is strengthening fathers' relationships with their children. Retrieved from https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/