Fifty years ago, psychologists and psychiatrists thought they knew exactly what it took for children to grow into happy, fulfilled, and productive adults: attachment to their mothers. Attachment theory, which peaked in popularity in the middle of the last century, was built upon the intriguing idea that a secure bond between mother and child was vital for the formation of emotionally healthy adults. Its originator, British psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby, reported that children who had formed attachments to their mothers before the age of 2 were more confident about exploring the world around them, while those who hadn't were more likely to be wary and to cling to their mothers. This idea was so popular that Bowlby became the most cited psychologist in academic journals in the 20th century, outranking even Freud.
There was just one problem: Bowlby sidestepped the issue of how fathers fit into the picture. "[Bowlby's thesis] struck me as odd. The kids they were studying had fathers as well as mothers, but all the focus was on the relationships with the mothers," says Michael Lamb, a professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge, England, who is widely regarded as the researcher who forced psychologists to begin taking the role of the father seriously. Because of Lamb, and those who have followed in his footsteps, research on what fathers contribute to their children has finally begun to catch up with what we know about the mother-child bond. Recently, psychologist Anna Sarkadi and her colleagues at Uppsala University in Sweden reviewed 24 of the best studies designed to measure the outcomes for children whose fathers were engaged with their children. The findings were impressive.
1. Kids with involved fathers were better behaved. The studies suggested that children of involved fathers were less likely to smoke and had fewer behavioral problems as adolescents.
2. Kids with involved fathers were less likely to be involved in crime. Less-advantaged boys with involved fathers demonstrated less aggressive behavior. The sons and daughters of engaged fathers were less likely to be involved in delinquency or crime.
3. Kids with involved fathers were smarter. Premature infants in disadvantaged African-American families had higher IQs at age 3 if their fathers played with them and cared for them.
4. Kids with involved fathers fared better as adults. They had better educational outcomes and social relations as adults. Daughters whose fathers read to them and paid attention to their education were less likely to suffer from depression as adults.
This does not mean that children in families in which fathers are absent are destined to have a poor outlook. In some of the studies, a highly engaged father figure seemed to provide many of the same benefits to children. These father figures could include stepfathers and other men who live in the home.
Research suggests that fathers play differently than mothers -- and that kids benefit from that. Making time for conversations is important, too: Fathers tend to use different vocabulary than mothers with their children, and kids gain from that as well. There are a myriad of other ways for fathers to become more involved, such as going to doctors' appointments, volunteering as class parent, or coaching the soccer team. Fathers who make time to play with their children make a difference.
Paul Raeburn is the author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked, published by Scientific American/FSG, 2014.
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