Studies into the effects of a father’s attitude on their offspring have been few and far between. New research finds that a father’s emotional engagement and confidence in fatherhood reduces the child’s chances of behavioral problems.
Historically, a father’s role has been considered one of “provider.” Modern families are not so rigid in structure.
Today’s fathers are much more likely to be involved in nurturing than those 50 years ago.
Because of this relatively new shift in family life, understanding a father’s impact has become more important in informing policies aimed at improving health outcomes and family psychology.
Although a father’s role is considered important in bringing up a well-adjusted child, earlier research has characterized their influence as one dimensional.
A group of researchers recently reopened this question; their results are published this week in BMJ Open.
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) has been tracking 15,000 children since birth, measuring paternal influence in particular. The researchers delved into this data set to gain insight into a father’s role.
The parents of 10,440 children completed questionnaires; all of the children were living at home with both parents at the age of 8.
The questionnaires covered topics including their offspring’s mental health, their attitudes to parenting, their child’s behavior and development, how much time they spent caring for the child, and details of the household’s income and education level.
At the ages of 9 and 11, the children’s behavior was assessed using the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ); a high SDQ score denotes a child with more emotional and behavioral challenges. The SDQ questionnaire covers behavior problems, emotional symptoms, relationships with peers, hyperactivity, and helpfulness (pro-social behavior).
The level of the father’s involvement was measured using another questionnaire that asked them to rate how much they agree with 58 statements. The statements covered various aspects, including the amount of childcare the men engaged in, their attitudes to parenting, how much time they spent doing household chores, their relationship with the child, and their feelings toward fatherhood at 8 weeks and 8 months after birth.
Overall, the analysis was based on 7,000 children aged 9 and almost 6,500 of the same children aged 11. Three key factors were shown to have a particularly strong influence on their children’s SDQ scores:
- The father’s emotional response to the newborn and their parenting role
- How much time the father spent directly caring for the child
- Confidence level – how they adjusted to their role as father.
A father’s confidence level and their emotional response were most strongly associated with the least emotional issues in the 9- and 11-year-olds. The authors concluded:
“The findings of this research study suggest that it is psychological and emotional aspects of paternal involvement in a child’s infancy that are most powerful in influencing later child behavior, and not the amount of time that fathers are engaged in childcare or domestic tasks in the household.”
Specifically, fathers who scored highly in the emotional category had a 21 percent and 19 percent lower odds of receiving a high SDQ score at the ages of 9 and 11, respectively.
Additionally, those fathers who scored highly on the confidence questions were associated with 28 percent lower odds of high SDQ scores among offspring at both ages.
The researchers controlled for potentially confounding variables, including hours worked, household income, and sex of the child, but the interaction was still significant. They found that for each unit increase in the emotional category, the odds of behavioral problems dropped by 15 percent at the ages of 9 and 12 percent at the age of 11.
In the confidence category, every unit increase was associated with 12 percent lower odds of a high SDQ score at 9, and 10 percent at 11.
Because this is an observational study, cause and effect can not be teased apart. The researchers also note that the data from the study goes back 25 years and that parenting styles have changed significantly over the years.
Despite the study’s inherent shortfalls, the findings are intriguing and merit further investigation.