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The Importance of Fathers for Child Development

How fathers contribute to children’s well-being.

Key points

  • Fathers play an important role in a child's development and can affect a child's social competence, performance in school and emotion regulation.
  • Fathers can also affect a child's wellbeing indirectly. A supportive relationship between parents is linked to better self-regulation in a child.
  • Countries such as Norway and Sweden attempt to engage fathers and mothers equally in caregiving by providing paternal as well as maternal leave.

Historically, mothers have received more research attention than fathers. And mothers have more often been characterized as children’s primary caregivers, whereas fathers have been characterized as playmates. However, in many countries, gender roles have become more equitable over time, and research now suggests that fathers play many important roles in child development.

Hannah Nelson/Pexels
Source: Hannah Nelson/Pexels

Direct and Indirect Effects of Fathers on Children’s Well-Being

Fathers are not just helpers for mothers but are important to children in their own right. For example, children with sensitive and supportive fathers have higher levels of social competence and better peer relationships. Children whose fathers provide them with learning materials and speak with them frequently perform better in school and have more advanced language skills. Fathers can serve those roles even when they do not live with the child. For example, regardless of whether they live together, children who have regular positive contact with their father tend to regulate their emotions better than children who have no contact with their father. Nevertheless, if no father is involved, other caregivers can also serve those functions. Family structure is less important than having loving caregivers meeting children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs.

In addition to these direct effects that fathers have on children, a father can also influence a child’s well-being indirectly through his relationship with the child’s mother. Conflict between parents is detrimental to children’s well-being, especially if conflict is hostile and unresolved. Supportive co-parenting relationships, by contrast, are related to better self-regulation and fewer behavior problems in children. Families function as entire systems, not just as isolated parent-child dyads.

Family Structure

If two parents are involved in a child’s life, these two parents may contribute to children’s well-being in different ways. For example, parenting effects may be additive (more love from more people is better for the child) or buffering (harshness by one parent might be offset by care from the other parent). For other parenting functions, as long as someone is doing it (e.g., keeping track of the child’s whereabouts), both parents don’t necessarily need to do it.

Regardless of family structure, children need to have their physical needs met, have cognitive stimulation, and feel loved and accepted. If a father or mother is not involved in the child’s life, another caregiver can serve these functions, but it is important for all caregivers to have support in their caregiving role. This support can come from the child’s other parent, extended family, friends, or others.

Supportive Social Policies for Fathers

Countries differ in supports for fatherhood. In some countries, mothers are still considered children’s primary caregivers, and only mothers are eligible for parental leave. Other countries attempt to engage fathers and mothers equally in caregiving through social policies providing for paternal as well as maternal leave following the birth or adoption of a child. For example, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden offer paid paternal as well as maternal leave, and paternal leave cannot simply be transferred to the mother.

Whether leave policies can be used by fathers as well as mothers has important implications for gender roles within families and at a societal level. When fathers take parental leave and have time devoted to caring for their children, they are more likely to perceive themselves as active co-parents, and children relate to both parents more equitably.

Fathers and Child Well-Being

Fathers are important to children’s well-being. Sensitive, supportive, involved fathers contribute to children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social adjustment. Fathers also influence children’s well-being in conjunction with mothers and other caregivers, making it important to understand father-child relationships as part of entire family systems.

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