[Editors note: While this article is about fathers in heterosexual relationships, we extrapolate that the positive impacts described are consistent among same-sex and gender non-conforming relationships. This is based on research that has shown that children have similar outcomes no matter the gender of the parents raising them. Unfortunately, at this time there is a lack of research on non-traditional family structures—but things are changing, and we support the continuation of efforts that support all families.
We also acknowledge that single parents work exceptionally hard to ensure that their children have the best outcomes and that the absence of a father or partner does not automatically preclude children from healthy and happy lives. We stand behind all families.]
Some of us who are mothering little ones today still remember the stories of our own mothers describing how our dads were not allowed into the labor and delivery room when we were born. While much has changed in terms of birthing practices, fathers today are still at times overlooked or considered second-class parents in popular culture. Jokes about clueless fathers who can't find their kids' clothes still surface from time to time, but most of us realize the crucial role our children's fathers—and all partners and family members—play in their lives.
In the research world, times have changed as well. Only a few decades ago the role of fathers in childhood development was mostly ignored. Psychology scholars educated before the 1980s rarely heard any mention of fathers in their academic journals. Virtually all of the research focused on mothers' roles in their children's development.
Now, of course, we are more enlightened on this topic. We have learned in the intervening years that a father plays a significant role in a child's development. Fathers are no longer just considered "babysitters" but active, equal partners in their child's life.
From birth through adolescence, the crucial role of fathers continues to be illustrated in study after study.
Dads and their babies
Although most of us today consider the father's presence at the time of our baby's birth to be commonplace, this was not the case only a generation ago. Much of this change has been due to the clear benefits we see for both mom and baby by having the dad in the room.
From a baby's earliest days, the presence of an engaged, attentive father or partner can have a positive impact. Some studies have shown that babies who experience skin-to-skin contact with their fathers in the first hours after birth tend to cry less, calm quicker and fall asleep sooner than babies staying in a crib.
Fathers' attention to and care for their babies in the early months is one way they foster a secure attachment. Past developmental research on attachment seemed to imply that babies only attach to one caregiver (usually the mother), but we know now that this is not the case. Babies become securely attached to multiple caregivers, especially if the other caregiver (e.g., the partner) is responsive and attentive to the baby's physical and emotional needs.
Forming a secure attachment isn't merely about the amount of time caregivers spend with infants either. Even partners who cannot spend long periods of time with their infants can potentially still establish a secure attachment. One study found that the responsiveness of caregiving mattered more than the sheer amount of time spent together.
Ultimately, attachment is about becoming attuned to the baby's needs and cues.
Secure attachment, of course, promotes all sorts of good outcomes for children for years to come, including better emotional regulation, fewer behavior problems, even better academic performance into the teen years.
The childhood years
The positive impacts of active fathers, of course, do not end in the nursery. Throughout childhood, the important role of fathers continues as children develop emotionally, physically and intellectually.
Just as with mothers, the path through which fathers' influence children's development is largely through the attachment relationship. This extends even into childhood and beyond.
Social-emotional development is one key area where fathers' impact is seen clearly. Studies find that secure attachment with fathers supports emotional skills like empathy and the ability to read emotions, even in the school-age years.
As children mature, the role of play becomes increasingly important in their development. Although it seems stereotypical to say that dads engage in more roughhousing and rough-and-tumble play, research does support this distinction. Children whose fathers were active play participants, particularly roughhousing, were shown to have strong social competence in school and improved behavior. While that roughhousing may seem rowdy and silly, it actually has amazing hidden developmental benefits.
Cognitive development and education
Recent research is opening our eyes to the fact that the father's day-to-day involvement with their children influences their education and cognitive development as well.
Several studies have shown that fathers' involvement with their children in activities such as reading and outings together predicted children's further educational progression. Similarly, children with involved fathers were more likely to graduate from high school and college. From these, it's clear to see that father's contributions to children's cognitive development go well beyond just the financial resources available to them.
The adolescent years can be a turbulent time for many children. These are the years when unsavory peer influences, risky behavior and mental health issues can take hold if more positive influences are not present. Fathers can play a crucial role in children's lives during this time. The presence of an active, engaged father can act as a protective force in the lives of adolescents. For example, studies find that teens with involved fathers are less likely to have problems with delinquency and depression.
The role of father's attachment relationship extends into adolescence as well. Although children are older and more mature, that foundational attachment relationship can have long-reaching effects. Some studies find that teens who have a secure attachment to their fathers have higher self-esteem and are less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors. The time fathers invest in those early years establishing a strong bond with their children continues to benefit them into adolescence.
After years of their role in parenting being diminished, fathers are now understood to be equal contributors to their child's development. We see through research and personal experience that fathers play a meaningful and complementary role to that of mothers. Fathers influence children in meaningful emotional and psychological ways that last a lifetime.