University of Delaware Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences Rob Palkovitz studies father-child relationships across cultural contexts, developmental stages, and life transitions.
- The quality of a father-child relationship can be broken down by the “ABC of Fatherhood”: Affective Climate, Behavior and Connection.
- Involved fathers change in ways that benefit children, their communities and themselves.
- The building of a father-child relationship takes place gradually, through a series of transitions as the child develops.
It is tempting to think of father-child relationships in physical and temporary terms. Is dad loving? Does dad spend the time? These things matter – specifically for younger children – but two questions may not include the quality or importance of a father-child relationship. New research offers a significantly more complex vision of concerned fatherhood and its benefits over the lifespan of men and their children.
The model that best explains how involved fathers can benefit from positive and consistent engagement with their children is known as the “ABC of Fatherhood.” This research-supported three-point plan for long-term relationships and personal success suggests that father’s emotional investments in their children always bear fruit.
The “A” in the “ABC of Fatherhood” is for the “affective” climate. It is the feeling of love and steadfastness of a father who is there. This is how a child feels: “My father has my back. He really cares about me. I could call him anytime and he would come. I can be halfway around the world and he thinks of me. ”
This affective climate is the most crucial foundation of a father-child relationship. Being protected in a father’s love is the basis for a positive identity and the courage to explore and learn new things. And the development of these facets of the father-child relationship is not only good for the children – it is also an important part of adult male human development.
Studies have shown that involved fatherhood improves a man’s cognitive skills, health and capacity for empathy. It builds his self-confidence and self-esteem while improving emotional regulation and expression. Involved fathers often say that they have learned to control their anger better or to express negative emotions, such as fear, so readily. They also often acknowledged the need to express tender emotions that men, stereotypically, allegedly find challenging. Once again, they transfer emotional development as fathers to other contexts. This is good for their marriages and their friendships.
“B” represents a father’s behavior. Dad goes to his kids’ games, helps with homework, climbs out with them and kicks a soccer ball. This is the observable sign of a particular father-child relationship. When a father is positively involved in these ways, his children tend to have better school performance, smoother peer relationships, less drug use, delayed sexual initiation, and fewer problems with the law and authorities.
The benefits of this type of commitment are not just long-term for men. Fatherhood gives men permission to play, possibly for the first time in decades. If a man without children enjoys building blocks or coloring books, he may be considered immature, but doing these things with children makes him a sensitive caregiver. A close father-child relationship gives fathers opportunities to relive their childhood, reintegrate memories and make sense of relationships with their own parents. When they get down to earth with children, it’s not just wonderful parenting – they’re also doing deep psychological development for themselves.
Finally, “C” stands for connection. It’s about a father’s synchronicity with – and sensitivity to – his children, which allows father to make use of learning moments. A father who has mastered connection is good at reading his child’s mood. If he thinks his child needs more of him, he will give more. If he thinks he’s overwhelming the child, he will withdraw. This is what Edward Tronick, the American developmental psychologist, described as the “dance of parenthood,” where we learn about taking turns and being focused on others.
Agree changes men. A close father-child relationship means that a father will typically be more empathetic towards the outlook of children, a skill he can then apply elsewhere, such as at work, to better understand the diverse perspectives of colleagues.
A close father-child relationship develops the father’s abilities for evaluation, planning and decision-making – all part of the executive function. Dad does it every day. This comes into play, for example, if they are only home for a few hours before the children go to bed, but plan to make good use of that time, on an outing or to help with homework or go to a soccer game. The use of executive function to juggle resources effectively transfers to other parts of a man’s life.
An involved father will create or deploy interpersonal relationships and contextual resources to support his parenting. It is not uncommon for a father who was previously uninvolved in his community to suddenly join a neighborhood association or become interested in exploration. He wants his children to be safe and is now striving for his goals through pro-social behavior. Interestingly, this pro-social behavior sometimes extends to itself. Involved fathers quit smoking. Their diet. They go to the doctor. Sometimes they are involved in this behavior despite very poor records regarding their own health. Again, they want their children to be safe and they guarantee that safety by looking after themselves.
None of this happens overnight. A man does not develop these skills in a magical way or get a seat on the apartment board due to paternity. He achieves developmental gains gradually by successfully building the father-child relationship through a series of transitions as his child develops, his family faces crises or deaths and changes his own economic or emotional situation. Involved dad doubles during transitions. The more a father connects his fatherhood to life changes, the “more of a father” he becomes. There are always events and situations that make it difficult for fathers to stay positively involved with their children; the critical benefit of involved fatherhood is that it puts fathers in a position to deal with coincidence while staying focused on fatherhood. It is not only good for men who have the confidence that stems from a strong identity and family structure, but for their children, who know that father has their back.
Father-child relationships are not, in short, just about the children. Fatherhood has a central role to play in male adult development. This is why physical affection and time spent with children cannot adequately describe the success of a father-child relationship over time. These relationships are successful when they lead to change – when increasingly informed, enthusiastic and skilled fathers learn to be older safe and increasingly independent young people.