Michael Lamb on Fathers and Children

April 22, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Dr. Michael Lamb is possibly the most knowledgeable person about the benefits to children of paternal involvement in their lives.  He is extremely highly respected by his peers.  So it’s always a pleasure and a learning experience to read his work.  Here’s a short article of his that expounds on the effects of father-child relationships and children’s well-being, both at the time and later in life (The Good Men Project, 4/21/19).

Put simply, close, active father-child attachment is associated with a host of benefits for kids.

Where there is a strong father-child attachment in the early period, research shows a link with the child’s later social skills, better behaviour and stronger cognitive skills (such as language and IQ). Fathers influence their children’s futures.

Interestingly, these links between strong father-child attachment and later child development are weaker in traditional families where the mother is a primary carer. This suggests that the difference an involved father makes is greater in non-traditional family structures.

I’m going to guess that latter observation comes about due to what Ruth Feldman’s team at Bar Ilan University in Israel found about fathers’ and mothers’ brains.  They found that fathers tend to come “hard-wired” to be the backup parent, to fill in when Mom can’t or won’t do the lion’s share of the parenting.  So it makes sense that, in traditional families, Mom is likely the primary caregiver, Dad fills in and therefore, his impact on the child’s social and cognitive skills later in life is less.

Supportive parenting of two year olds by fathers (and also by mothers) predicts later academic achievement. Anne Martin and her team found that supportive mothers and fathers at the age of 2 both appeared to promote better arithmetic and language scores when their children were aged 5…

Eirini Flouri and Ann Buchanan found that British children with more involved fathers had higher IQs at 7 years of age. Other researchers have found similar associations at 11 years and 16 years of age.  

Some researchers have worked hard to distinguish fathers’ influences on educational performance from the effects of other wider family and community influences. The links remain: fathers who are supportive appear to promote language and cognitive development.

That last is, I suspect, Lamb’s academician’s swipe at those who do indeed try their hardest to undermine and cast doubt on the value of fathers to children.  Theirs is a losing battle as Lamb points out.  Try as they might, the fathers’ many benefits to children keep showing up in the literature and, of course, in the lives of children.

In a large British study, when mothers reported father involvement at the age of 7, children were more likely to report being close to their fathers at 16 and to have lower levels of contact with police. Other researchers have found even longer-lasting links – paternal involvement at the age of 6 appears to influence the feelings of the child in his/her 30s, over 25 years later. High paternal involvement predicts adult social interaction styles, married relationships, parenting skills and mental health. The converse has also been shown – low paternal involvement and poor child-father attachments predict more psychological and social problems later.

Ross Parke and his colleagues found that a physically playful and affectionate father-son relationship predicts the son’s later popularity with his peers. Other researchers found that fathers who are more sensitive to their 5-year-olds’ emotional states have more socially competent children 3 years later.

Lamb doesn’t advocate for any particular public policy, but his reprise of some of the latest scientific findings on father-child involvement and children’s well-being fairly shouts for policy reforms.  To read the countless ways in which children attach to their fathers and benefit from their relationships with them is to gasp in horror at our public policies that frankly interfere with and even prevent those very relationships.  We still fail to promote shared parenting in divorce cases, refuse to enforce visitation orders, financially incentivize divorce, remove fathers from the adoption process, exclude fathers when mothers are found to have abused or neglected their children.  And on and on.

It’s a dysfunctional public policy that damages the institution of marriage and denies fit fathers to children.  It’s a policy that is content with greater individual deficits when those kids grow up.  We know better, but fail to do better.  The chasm between what the science teaches us and what public policy and law do about fathers and children grows ever wider.

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