Early Childhood Education



Thirty years ago, fathers were called “the forgotten contributors to child development” (Lamb, 1975). No longer forgotten, fathers today are acknowledged as competent caregivers who can play a unique role in their children’s development. In the mid-twentieth century, psychoanalytic theories of child development were popular, and forwarded a view that fathers were not central to a child’s development during the first years of a child’s life. The father’s role, it was believed, was at first indirect, in supporting mothers as primary caregivers. In the United States, fewer mothers than today were employed outside the home in the paid workforce, and were more often at-home primary caregivers. Later, beyond infancy, the father’s role was seen as more direct, in encouraging children to separate from their mothers, and to develop independence. Today, we recognize that infants and their fathers form special relationships from birth. Research has shown that infants develop attachments to their fathers from the beginning of life, and that many men are involved in the lives of their young children in many ways.

Positive fathering behaviors that include being both available and involved are associated with favorable development in children. Fathering characterized by warmth, clear communications, and high expectations for children is often linked with more positive development in children, at least in “mainstream” U.S. families. The beneficial effects of positive fathering have been demonstrated in areas such as children’s academic achievement, empathy, self-esteem, self-control, well-being, life skills, and social competence. Positive fathering is not just the amount of time that fathers spend with their children; it involves warmth and sensitivity, economic support, monitoring of children’s activities, and the beliefs that fathers have about child development and fathering.

Fathers often are characterized as “playmates,” spending a greater percent of their time with their children in play activities, compared with mothers. Father- child play is often physical, or “rough and tumble,” especially during the early years. One feature of this kind of play is that there are “emotional highs and lows”; the play can bring shrieks of joy and laughter or, sometimes, tears. Fathers, then, may play a special role in the development of children’s emotion regulation, since this kind of play provides opportunities for children to learn and practice skills or behaviors for coping with strong emotions (positive or negative). Paternal involvement in early childhood also is associated with empathy development, both in childhood and adulthood.

The development of children’s social skills as successful participants in peer and other relationships beyond the family can also be affected by father involvement. Warm, face-to-face interactions can promote the acquisition of social skills necessary for peer relationships. Similar to the influence of a positive mother-child attachment, a positive father-child attachment can influence social adaptation. In general, children with secure attachments are more liked by others, exhibit higher levels of self-esteem, and have better social skills. When the father monitors his child’s social relationships, as a mentor or guide, he is able to educate his child on appropriate social patterns and behaviors necessary for the promotion of peer relationships.

Fathers also seem to have a special role in children’s cognitive development. Research shows that father involvement is associated with children’s learning, cognitive achievement, and academic success in school. Children of involved fathers also are more likely to believe that they have some control over events, and may show greater verbal performance, perhaps in part due to high educational expectations when fathers are involved in children’s school performance.

Becoming a father is a life-changing experience for men and contributes to a man’s own development. Involved fathers have been shown to exhibit higher levels of self-esteem, self-confidence, and satisfaction, both personally and within their parental role. Men who are involved fathers also are more involved in their communities, making greater social connections. Father involvement also affects marital stability and satisfaction. The ways in which a man fathers are affected by other things in his life, including the relationship that he has with the mother of his child, his relationships with his own parents, especially his father, his employment, and other institutional supports and barriers to positive fathering.

While the average age of U.S. men at the birth of their first child has remained relatively stable in recent years (29.7 years), other trends in the changing demographics of the United States affect fathers and children. Rates of divorce and nonmarital births have risen substantially in recent decades. Subsequently, the number of children living without their fathers in residence has increased by some 14 million, from 10 million in 1960 to 24 million in 2005. Past research on nonresidential fathers shows that they have less influence over their children and child-rearing decisions, and that these fathers spend the majority of the time with their children engaging in leisure play activities. Father-headed single parent families also have steadily increased in the last half-century. The number of residential single fathers living with their children has increased from 393,000 in 1970 to 2.3 million in 2004, and men currently comprise 19 percent of single residential parents. Single-parent fathers face many of the same challenges that single-parent mothers do, and in general, prove to be as competent in the role of primary caregiver. As divorce rates have increased so has the rate of remarriage and step fathering. Stepfathers face unique challenges, particularly with regard to establishing disciplining patterns. Stepfathers who do not have biological children tend to develop better relationships with their stepchildren; perhaps they have more time for involvement with their stepchildren. When a stepfather becomes a part of a new family system, biological fathers tend to reduce their involvement both socially and economically with their children.

Many children in the United States grow up without the stable, consistent involvement of their biological fathers. Recent surveys show that 40 percent of children with nonresidential, biological fathers have not seen their fathers in at least one year, and an estimated two-thirds of nonresidential fathers do not pay child support. The implications of this trend are substantial, as these children are more likely to experience poverty, perform poorly in school, engage in criminal activity, and abuse drugs and alcohol. Among men in state prisons, 55 percent are fathers of children under the age of 18. Recent studies have shown that nearly 3 percent of U.S. children (2.1 million nationwide) under the age of 18 have fathers who are incarcerated. The effects of having an incarcerated parent on children may include impaired parent-child bonding and socioemotional development, as well as reactive behaviors and an intergenerational cycle of crime and incarceration. Rates of incarcerated fathers vary across racial groups. Studies show that while 1.2 percent of non-Hispanic white children have a father who is incarcerated, 3 5 percent of Hispanic children, and 9.1 percent of non-Hispanic black children have an incarcerated father.

As we begin to recognize the complexity of paternal involvement, as well as recent changes in fathering trends, policies, and programs have been developed to support fathers’ development and involvement in their children’s lives. A host of programs at the federal, state, and local levels aim to support positive fathering. At the federal level, for example, the Bush Administration’s Fatherhood Initiative, the Health and Human Services Department, and the Family and Youth Services Bureau have proposed programs to strengthen the role of the fathers, programs to assist noncustodial fathers become more involved in their children’s lives, and programs that provide mentoring for children of prisoners. See also Development, Emotional; Development, Social; Incarcerated Parents, Children of; Peers and Friends.

Further Readings: Lamb, M. E. (1975). Fathers: Forgotten contributors to child development. Human Development 4, 245-266; Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., and N. Cabrera, eds. (2002). Handbook of father involvement: Multidisciplinary perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Palkovitz, R. (2002). Involved fathering and men’s adult development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Parke, R. D. (2002). Fathers and families. In M. H. Bornstein, ed., Handbook of Parenting. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 27-73.

M. Ann Easterbrooks and Cynthia R. Davis