Researcher to Dads: ‘Don’t Underestimate How Important You Are’

This is not much of an article, but click on the audio at the bottom/right of the piece and you’ll hear a much more informative interview (ABC, 5/2/11).

The article is about a new book that seems well worth reading.  It’s called The Dad Factor: How Father-Baby Bonding Helps a Child for Life and it’s by Dr. Richard Fletcher who’s an Australian academician.  He’s a senior lecturer in Health Studies at the University of Newcastle, and head of the Fathers and Families Research Program at the university’s Family Action Center.

Dr. Fletcher’s research has determined that fathers are vital to the healthy development of children right from the start.  He’s emphatic that fathers not try to come into their children’s lives only when they’re old enough to kick a football, but literally from Day 1.

He says in the first few hours after birth, a baby is primed to react to the father’s voice which he or she heard when in utero and the way a father interacts with a baby can literally shape the structure of the baby’s brain.

The interview touches ever so lightly on things like maternal gatekeeping, the process by which mothers and fathers interact in ways that give power to the mother to decide dad’s level of involvement with the baby.  But mainly Fletcher’s goal is to convince dads to overcome their hesitancy about their own proper role and their tendency to step back and let Mom be the main parent.

Whatever may be the interpersonal dynamic between the mother and the father is not Fletcher’s concern.  He’s there to exhort fathers to interact with their babies from the very beginning.  According to him, it’s vital for the baby’s well-being.

Fletcher’s done a lot of work with fathers and their associations with their children.  What he describes are men who are very dedicated to their children and to being active, hands-on fathers, but who don’t know what to do.  Their hearts are in the right place, but the practical details are missing.

One of Fletcher’s points is that mothers and fathers alike must not see children as “tasks to be done,” but as autonomous human beings to be understood and cared for.  One exercise he has them perform is to continually ask themselves “what is the baby thinking now?”  How did he/she experience what the parent just did?

That seems like an obvious thing to do, but apparently many parents don’t think of it.  Fletcher said he knew a terribly depressed mother whose emotional state improved dramatically just because she stopped thinking of the child as a job to do and started trying to get inside its head and see things from the child’s point of view.

More importantly for dads, father-child bonding can affect the child’s mental, emotional and even physical well-being.  Failure to bond can result in psychological problems later in life.

Fletcher also sees a cultural shift toward greater father-child involvement.  He led pre-natal classes for fathers who commonly expressed a desire to be more involved in child care than were their own fathers.  He’s at pains to say that the research on fathers and children that’s been done over the last decade or so makes it clear that, as we’ve heard before, “Dad is not just another pair of hands.”

That is, dads aren’t there just to help Mom.  They bring their own vital contributions to childcare.  Generally speaking, mothers and fathers parent differently, each is important in its own way to the child and the two together create a sort of synergy that makes for greater child well-being.

“Fathers have an impact on their baby’s brain development and personality.”

So fathers aren’t just helpers for mothers; they’re vital to their child’s well-being independent of her and everything else.  For that reason, they need to take an active role from the start.

That said, Fletcher warns against the “Superman Approach” in which Dad, if Mom’s depressed and not coping, tries to do everything himself.  Like any parent, those dads need help and need to seek and find it.  Fletcher points out that mothers in that situation might not be thrilled for Dad to seek help because his doing so might reflect on her own parenting.

Science advances; family law remains behind.  Fletcher has done excellent work.  His research adds to a growing body of scientific data that all points in one direction – the importance of fathers to children.  We now have essentially irrefutable evidence that children need their fathers and that two biological parents provide by far the best environment for the healthy, happy development of children.

Meanwhile politics and family law are still finding new, more inventive ways to keep fathers and children apart and to keep all family power in the hands of mothers.  It’s like having one foot in the 21st century and one in the Stone Age, except Stone Age parents were probably far smarter about parenting and children than are most family court judges today.

Still, my sense is that family law is slowly being dragged kicking and screaming toward greater fathers’ rights and the recognition of the need of children for their dads.  Books like Richard Fletcher’s help us on the way.

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