“We are surprised that ‘children who have a good relationship with their father are happier’ is news in 2021.”
This is the response by Dave Saunders, the founder of the mentoring organisation From Lads to Dads, to a headline finding of new research published this week, and one that is surely shared by other parents.
It wouldn’t be the first time a social science study has declared something we know intuitively or presume. But that’s not to detract from the importance of the evidence-based conclusions reached in the report “Fathers and Children from Infancy to Middle Childhood”, compiled by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
The work is aimed at policy-makers, who should not rely on assumptions and anecdotes. Up to now, Irish and international research has given much less attention to the influence of fathers on children than that of mothers.
Mining a wealth of data banked by the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study, the report tracks which fathers do what in a child’s life between the ages of nine months and nine years, and with what effect. It finds that fathers’ greater involvement in care during infancy has a lasting positive effect on father-child relationships. For children, it leads to greater happiness, less anxiety and more participation in physical activity. For fathers, it results in less parenting stress for the men and lower rates of conflict with their child.
These findings indicate likely societal benefits from more men taking paternity and parental leave, although data used for this study was gathered from fathers whose children were born in 2008, before they were entitled to any paid time off to care for a child. However, availing of flexible working is linked to more father-child interaction at both ages five and nine, underlining the positive effect of family-friendly work practices.
The research, produced in conjunction with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, focused on two-parent households, with some added information on the quality of relationships between children and non-resident fathers. There was not enough data on lone parents and same-sex couples for separate analysis.
The findings are welcomed by those supporting fathers who may, for whatever reason, feel sidelined. Damien Peelo, chief executive of Treoir, a service for unmarried parents and their children, says it clearly shows the critical influence fathers have in their children’s upbringing and on their physical and mental health.
“For unmarried parents, especially those not living together, navigating childcare and parenting can be especially difficult.” More support is needed, he says, to enable these parents be equally involved in decision-making, childcare and financial support of their child.
“In the past 20 months,” says Peelo, “Treoir has seen an increase in the number of calls to our national helpline service and many of them have been related to fathers not having access to their children due to the pandemic and [who] have seen the long-term effect this has had on their relationship.”
Alienated Children First, an organisation raising awareness of how a parent can turn children against the other parent after relationship breakdown, also welcomes the highlighting of the positive influence of fathers. Its director Kenn Joyce says the report appears to recognise the difficulties of gathering accurate information in cases of high-conflict separations, where children may not be able to give their true feelings on not being allowed to see their father.
The insights that the very detailed, 90-plus-page report offers into a slice of family life from a male perspective are in part predictable, sometimes surprising. Elevated stress reported among first-time dads is to be expected, but who would have thought that the more highly educated fathers are, the more stressed they are likely to be by parenting?
At From Lads to Dads, a community-based network in south Dublin, “we see a lot of what is in this report reflected in our work with dads, such as first-time fathers being highly stressed,” says Saunders. “They need more information and encouragement at the antenatal stage, childbirth and preparation for life as a father.” These dads, he adds, are seeking more information on bonding and attachment, particularly at the 0-1 year stage when, as the research demonstrates, involvement by fathers sets the pattern for years to come.
Here are just seven strands from the study’s densely woven picture of fathers’ interaction with their children:
Division of labour at nine months
Cuddling, playing and picking up when crying are what fathers and mothers are most likely to both do equally with their nine-month-old. Presented with a list of 14 activities, fathers were asked to indicate which were always/usually done by themselves, equally or by their partners.
The jobs most likely to be done by mothers alone were getting the infant up and dressed in the morning and bathing, while putting the child to bed and “singing” came out as the top two activities most likely to be done by fathers alone – 12 per cent of them saying they usually or always did those.
Of course the employment status of fathers and/or mothers looms large here. Fathers not in paid employment had the highest level of involvement, while those working more than a 40-hour week had the least. Father-child activity also increased if mothers were working outside the home.
Impact of extended maternity leave
Fathers’ involvement in the care of children was lower at nine months if the mothers were employed but still on maternity leave, than among couples where the woman was a stay-at-home mother. Perhaps the temporary state of the mother being off paid employment colours the view of fathers, and possibly mothers too, on the sharing of responsibilities. Yet higher levels of attachment are found among fathers whose wives/partners are on extended maternity leave and the lowest levels found among those whose wives are working full-time.
By the time a child was nine years of age, fathers reported higher levels of involvement in play and outings with the child than mothers. More than half were engaged in sport/physical activities with their child at least once a week; listening to the child read and playing with them with toys/games were also fairly prevalent.
More highly educated fathers were more involved in play-related activities at ages five and nine than those with lower levels of education, even taking account of longer working hours.
Sons v daughters
The gender of babies had little effect on the extent of fathers’ involvement in their lives at nine months. The exception was bathing the child, where the likelihood of this being left to mothers was higher for female infants than for male infants.
However, by the age of five, gender was a much stronger determining factor in what activities fathers did with their children. They were more likely to play with toys with their sons and engage in sports or physical activities with them every day. They were also less likely to play computer games frequently with their daughters.
In contrast, fathers were somewhat more likely to visit the library with their daughters and, at age nine, to listen more to their daughters read than their sons.
Fathers, on average, reported higher levels of closeness with their daughters than sons. This was mirrored by girls who, at nine years of age, were more likely to report getting on very well with their fathers than boys. However, girls were less likely to be willing to talk to their fathers about a problem than boys.
When it came to father-child conflict, no significant variation was found on gender grounds from the fathers’ perspective, nor was there any evidence that daughters cause their dads more or less stress than sons. However, from the children’s viewpoint, important differences in the effect of the father-child relationship were evident.
Father-child conflict was significantly related to poorer self-image among boys but had no marked impact on female self-image. In contrast, getting on very well with their father was associated with enhanced self-image for both boys and girls, but the size of the effect was somewhat larger for girls when it came to freedom from anxiety and to happiness.
Parenting stress test
Stress levels of both mothers and fathers follow a similar trajectory as a child grows from nine months to nine years. Highest at the outset, the levels steadily decline until age five and then they start to climb steadily towards age nine.
Curiously, there seems to be a link between higher education and paternal stress. Fathers with postgraduate qualifications reported higher levels of parenting stress, a trend that is not accounted for by other factors examined, such as hours worked. The authors suggest that further research could explore whether this is due to other demands of their job, such as greater responsibility or pace of work, affecting their family life. However, it could be linked to different expectations of fathers’ roles among more advantaged groups. Previous international research has highlighted the emphasis middle-class parents place on active engagement in stimulating learning activities with their children.
Overall, fathers who reported greater attachment with the infant at nine months continued to have lower parental stress levels for the next eight years.
When fathers live elsewhere
More frequent contact, especially involving sleepovers, led to a more positive relationship between nine-year-olds and nonresident fathers. Some 65 per cent of children who answered the question reported they got on “very well” with their fathers who lived elsewhere, compared with 78 per cent of their peers living with both parents saying the same.
Breast is best but perhaps not for all fathers
Fathers’ involvement with their child at nine months was somewhat lower if the infant had ever been breastfed but was markedly lower if s/he was still being breastfed. Additional analysis (not shown in the report) indicates that this is not just related to breastfeeding-related activities such as feeding the child or putting them to bed but to involvement in other tasks as well.
The many benefits of breastfeeding for babies and their mothers are well proven, so if this suggests that new fathers can feel left out, as some would contend, maybe greater awareness could help address that unwelcome effect.