Sunday the 1st of September was Father’s day in Australia. The children prepared breakfast and handed over their presents to their father. Melbourne is full of parks and beaches with a playground never too far. There were families everywhere, enjoying the nice weather, just sitting around or sporting. I paid special attention to all the fathers I saw out there with their children, including this father.
I did that because engaged fathers are important for their children. The most media-hyped and cited article I have ever been part of was a review of longitudinal studies looking at the effects of father involvement (Sarkadi, Kristiansson, Oberklaid, and Bremberg 2008). We said that the father’s active and regular engagement with the child predicts a range of positive outcomes, such as cognitive and social development. We could also see that father engagement seemed to help where it was most needed: it reduced the frequency of behavioural problems in boys and psychological problems in teenage girls. For poor families father engagement was even more important in protecting children from negative outcomes.
I probably never will receive such intense reactions to anything I do research-wise. It might seem as a pretty straightforward statement that fathers are important for their children, but it seemed to rip up a lot of feelings. The Sun called up, the article produced debate in the Irish Times, lesbian and single mother interest groups were furious, and fathers’ interest groups felt they got a new best friend. We still get e-mails from desperate fathers who use the article to prove their importance in court cases.
But the truth is, we didn’t talk about any fathers. It was engaged fathers, biological or not, and not living arrangements per se, that were shown to be important in our review. Antisocial, “non-existent”, or absent fathers were not the focus of our work. What we showed was that engaged fathers have an impact in their own right.
This means that over and above the mother’s engagement, which in most research on fathers is taken as a given, fathers have something special to add. They play and do things differently with their children compared to mothers, which is a good thing. For example, fathers often require more independence and socially competent behaviour of the child, helping it develop necessary life skills.
So Dear Fathers! Even if mothers and child health nurses sometimes act as gatekeepers, even if you lack ready role models for your parenting, or feel you have too many responsibilities to juggle, please don’t forget that you are important. When you read to or play with your child, change diapers, get up at night to chase away a nightmare, take an interest in homework or future plans, kick a ball, sign up your child for camp, or take them along to a barbecue or a concert – you are making a difference.
Even if you are divorced, work away from home, or never quite established a contact with your child, you still shouldn’t give up. You might not know it, but your child is secretly longing for you. And as our friend and father researcher Richard Fletcher once put it: any day is as good a day to start engaging in your child!