Dads play a key role in child development, study finds

Often depicted as being bumbling goofballs or out-of-touch with their families in pop culture, dads actually play a surprisingly important role in the child development from birth through fifth grade, according to new research coming out of Michigan State University.

In a pair of recently published studies, one appearing in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly and the other in Infant and Child Development, the MSU-led team found that fathers are far more involved in language development and cognitive growth than previously believed, and that programs such as Head Start would benefit from a “whole family” approach.

“There’s this whole idea that grew out of past research that dads really don’t have direct effects on their kids, that they just kind of create the tone for the household and moms are the ones who affect their children’s development,” MSU associate professor of child development Claire Vallotton, who led the research project, explained Thursday in a statement.

“But here we show that fathers really do have a direct effect on kids, both in the short term and long term,” Vallotton added. Her team’s findings underscore the increasing evidence supporting the notion that the characteristics of a father and the quality of his relationship with his children, not just his mere presence in the child’s life, are important to that child’s development.

Fathers’ stress, mental health issues could inadvertently harm their kids

The researchers analyzed data from 730 families participating in a survey conducted at Early Head Start programs in 17 different locations in the US to determine how much of an impact parental stress and mental health issues such as depression would have on their offspring.

They found that the parenting-related stress of fathers had a negative impact both the cognitive and the linguistic development of children when they were between the ages of 2 and 3, even if the mother’s influences were taken into account. Furthermore, the findings also showed that the effects were more pronounced on the language development on sons than of daughters.

A father's stress levels play an important role in their child's development. (Credit: Thinkstock)

A father’s stress levels play an important role in their child’s development. (Credit: Thinkstock)

Vallotton and her colleagues also found that the mental health of both mothers and fathers had a similarly significant effect on behavior problems in toddlers, and that the mental health of fathers had a long-term impact, resulting in differences in the social skills of children (i.e. self-control or the ability to cooperate with others) by the time those youngsters reached fifth grade.

“A lot of family-risk agencies are trying to get the dad more involved, but these are some of the things they could be missing,” explained Tamesha Harewood, who was the lead author of the Infant and Child Development paper and works in the MSU Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

“When the agency is talking with the dad, it’s not just about providing for your child economically, but also to be there for your child, to think about how stress or depression might be influencing your child,” she added. “In order to understand and help children in their development, there needs to be a comprehensive view of the whole family, including both mom and dad.”


Image credit: Thinkstock