We invited two moms, a married South African mom and a mom separated from her husband in Scotland, to share their thoughts candidly on these questions and why they think fathers are so important to their kids and their development. They share research findings and their own experiences, giving insight that every dad should read.
A mom believes that traditional sex differences are key
Chantelle du Toit
Any man can father a child, but it truly takes a special one to be a dad. Dads play a pivotal role in a child’s life and development. It makes me sad when I hear how many men are depicted as second best when it comes to parenting. They are often described as aloof or incompetent when it comes to caring for their children.
Often when dads have the opportunity to look after the kids without mom around, this is referred to as “babysitting.” But no one says that about mothers. We are “parenting.” Dads are just as important as moms when it comes to parenting their children. To be a daddy means to show up, engage, and be present in your child’s life.
Difference in parenting styles
The key to understanding a father’s role in parenting is to understand that mothers and fathers are different. We naturally have different parenting styles.
Dads are more likely to encourage risk taking. They have a more physically active play style and bring out the rough side of play in kids. This rough play and risk taking, such as encouraging kids to go down the big slide, aid in a child’s physical development. The child learns what his physical capabilities are and to not fear every new challenge. For this reason, fathers are often better at teaching children to swim because dads are more likely to let the child take on the risk of swimming.
Dads are more likely to encourage competition. Dads also communicate differently, which expands a child’s vocabulary.
Different outlooks on life
Children are naturally curious and ask lots of questions. As moms and dads have different perspectives, we will answer the same questions differently. Dads expose children to a variety of ways to deal with different aspects of life.
The advice that a dad will give concerning a conflict his child has with another kid at school, for instance, will be different from that of a mom. Dads who are active in their children’s lives have the opportunity to share these different perspectives and attitudes, which in turn teaches their children valuable life skills. Dads, who respond slower to a child experiencing frustration, promote independence and problem solving skills.
Increase in emotional intelligence and problem solving
Dads form an integral part of a child’s emotional, social, and behavioral development. In over 100 studies conducted on parent-child relationships, the results all showed that having a loving, nurturing, and supportive father was just as important for a child’s happiness, social well-being, and academic success as having a loving, nurturing, and supportive mother.
Studies involving children who had active fathers in their first year of life showed many benefits in their development. These children performed better on developmental assessments, math tests, and verbal tests. They also demonstrated an increased capacity for exploration, curiosity, and a sense of adventure. Another great advantage is that these kids were less likely to drop out of school or commit crimes. In addition, a 26-year-long study showed that the biggest factor in children developing empathy was paternal involvement.
Feeling loved and accepted is crucial for every child’s development. Experiencing this from a dad is the most precious gift a father can give his children as this builds their self-confidence. This self-confidence comes with the ability to better cope with stress and frustration. Such children will also be less likely to give in to peer pressure and are more likely to stand up for themselves and what they believe in.
Relationships with others
The empathy and self-confidence built up by a dad spill over into every relationship that the child has. The treatment that a child receives from you influences how he relates to other people. Children choose their friends and spouses from the example set by their dad. A father who loves his wife and treats her with respect teaches his son how to treat his wife well. Your son will mirror these characteristics as husbands to their wives.
Girls often choose husbands that are just like their fathers. Your children’s relationship with their dad sets the foundation for all their relationships. If she has a dad of strong stature, respectful and honest, a daughter will likely choose a man with the same characteristics.
Sons need to see their fathers fail sometimes. This teaches them how to deal with failure and mistakes, and to not be scared of them. Sons need their dads to take leadership of the family. They need to see their dads lead by example, with compassion. This teaches them to be leaders in their own family, community, or workplace. Sons need affirmation and encouragement. They need to hear Dad say, “I’m proud of you.”
The best role model for a child is his or her dad. The children of the dad that shows up every day will reap the benefits.
A dad is an important part of a child’s life…until he isn’t
What is a father’s role in parenting, and how does it impact a child? Determining the role of the father in the family has been studied repeatedly in psychology, socially, and scientifically for decades. The answer to that question may be subjective and very personal to you, especially if you have gone through a divorce or are separated from your children’s father.
Equally, I think that there is so much more to fathering than the label of “father.” Both parents are essential to a child’s upbringing and should be equally responsible and involved in children’s lives. The parental gender should not automatically determine the level of involvement required and expected of you.
It’s important that dads “be there”
But the mere presence of the father is not enough, and it is his level of involvement that matters. The impact of an actively involved father does not mean that the father has to live in the home with the child, it just means he needs to be invested and present in the child’s daily life.
The role of fathers in childhood development and lifetime success has been investigated many times, with significant findings, but is not yet fully understood. For instance, a father who is invested and actively involved in a child’s academic success directly leads to that child achieving higher academic standards than their fatherless peers.
Having an active fatherly presence means the child is less likely to suffer from neglect and child poverty. Usually, this is because a father will help provide financial support and stability to the family.
His presence also provides emotional and social development within the family as he takes on mentoring and caring for the children. He may demonstrate patience, thinking outside the box, demonstrate rules and why they must be followed, or when they should be broken. He shows a child how to develop healthy boundaries and how to stick up for themselves, lessons that are unique to each scenario but are immeasurably valuable over a child’s lifetime.
However, it is not only a father’s presence and involvement that matters, but their attitude and behavior while involved that is important. A father who shows up to the school game because he “has to,” versus the father in the crowd cheering his child on, provides 2 very different emotional experiences for the child. A child can inherently feel when a father is present but not “there” and when he is not present but always “there” for them.
It is also important to note that all children respond differently to their father’s presence. Two brothers growing up in a home with an alcoholic father may turn out to be very different adults. One may become an alcoholic himself, while the other refuses to ever drink, yet both would say their choice is the result of watching their father. Undeniably their father has impacted them both in a very significant way that changed their entire life path.
The changing role of dads during divorce
A father’s role may also shift and change depending on his relationship status with the mother. In the case of separation or divorce, the UK government has determined that at a bare minimum a father is financially responsible for a child and legally has to provide a set amount of financial support. Unfortunately, some single mothers and their children will not even see this role being filled by the father.
Much of modern society seem to think that if a man pays child support and has regular visitation with his children every other weekend then he is “a good dad.” Surprisingly, when other fathers don’t show up for visitation at all, some people will tell the kid who gets occasional visits, “At least you know your father.” As if the absences of all the other fathers somehow make the occasional presence of this one okay. Are occasional presence and financial support enough to truly constitute a father’s role in parenting?
I invite you to consider a thought experiment, where we reverse the gender norms in this scenario. Suppose a mother runs off and leaves her partner to become a full-time single dad. Every month she writes a check and visits her children for the weekend twice a month. Would you consider her to be a “good mom”? I imagine your answer to this question is “no.” Because inherently we know that there is so much more to mothering than just the label “mom.”
More concretely and measurably, it has been found that teens in broken homes are more likely to suffer from hyperactivity, conduct problems, or other behavioral issues, and paternal involvement is directly related to certain aspects of child adjustment.
Fathers influence mothers’ relationships with their children
A father also helps indirectly by relieving the financial and emotional pressures from the mother. The reduced stress and worry on the mother means she has enough emotional and mental capacity to show up and be a better parent to the child. Ultimately this means an active, involved father not only benefits the father-child relationship but also the mother-child relationship.
Indirectly, in cases of divorce, a father also impacts the relationship that the mother has with her child. It is well documented that a mother transitioning to becoming a single parent is linked to an increased chance of the child experiencing neglect, maltreatment, and child poverty. Having an active and involved father, even if he does not actively live in the home, can reduce this chance of neglect and maltreatment.
All dads are different
As you can see, a father’s role is significant in the development and success of the child. Yet I would argue that his role is not static. While some fathers take on the role of breadwinner and authority in the house, others may bring fun and creativity to a more serious household. So while scientifically it has been proven that fatherly involvement impacts a child’s success, perhaps each father impacts their child in their own unique and specific way, their own personality and the unique family dynamic determining the role he plays within that family.
And no matter what role he takes on, his active involvement, participation, and behavior are really what helps a child shine. Ultimately each parent brings something different to the table as individuals, but both parents are equally important in a child’s life. And each parent should be held to the same standards of “good” regardless of gender.
A chat between Chantelle and Brandi on the role of a father in the family
We invited Chantelle and Brandi to exchange their views on what the other mom wrote, across the more than 6000 miles/10,000 km that separate them from one another. While they didn’t agree on gender differences, they agreed on the difficulties faced by moms and kids alike when fathers aren’t an integral and self-motivated part of their kids’ lives.
Brandi Cowan: My name is Brandi, I was born in the USA, but I have lived in the UK since I was 18. I have three small kids (11, 9, 5). I was married for over 12 years, but have been separated for the last 3…so I am sort of a single mom in practice but not legally.
Chantelle du Toit: I’m Chantelle from South Africa. I’m a mom of 3, ages 7, 5, and 2. Happily married for 12 years and my husband is very involved with the kids. I studied Education and English and am busy completing my master’s in Psychology this year. I don’t actually teach anymore. After having had my kids I started my own business focusing on early child development and training parents and teachers so that I had more flexible time to be with my kids. More recently, I’m helping out at my kids’ school as a substitute teacher when they have a problem.
Brandi Cowan: That sounds nice, but a bit hectic.
Chantelle du Toit: I think it must be super tough to be a single mom.
Brandi Cowan: Yes, particularly when it was not part of your plan.
Chantelle du Toit: True, although I think very few people plan to be a single parent. I think you get thrown into it
Brandi Cowan: Very true.
Chantelle du Toit: The thing that stood out to me the most about what you wrote was the harsh reality that so many kids miss out on special time and influence from their fathers. Obviously, there are parents that choose to be a single parent, but in a single-parent household, it is so difficult to truly have a day-to-day relationship with both parents. Even if mom and dad can’t make it work anymore, I think they should try to make a plan (to get along) for the family to still “work” so that both mom and dad have a good meaningful relationship with the kids.
Brandi Cowan: I got married, waited a few years before having children, and had them all with my husband and “life partner.” Being a single mom was never part of the plan, but I guess I can sum it up by saying mental health very rarely cares about your life plans. I found myself a single mom basically overnight with no notice. This, of course, made it very difficult on a number of emotional levels, but even through it all, I made sure my kids had some relationship with their father. At times I had to almost force him to keep being involved, and it was painful for everyone, but I knew it was important regardless.
Chantelle du Toit: I can just imagine how difficult it must be to be a single parent. My parents got divorced when I was a teenager so my perspective is as the child of divorced parents. I’m sure would be easier if mom and dad were still on the same page regarding seeing the kids so that you didn’t have to feel like you have to force him to be involved.
Brandi Cowan: I think you and I agree a lot on the importance of fathers in children’s lives. But I do feel your views are very male vs. female stereotyped. While I do think a lot of cultures set these stereotypes for parents, I believe that the lessons our children learn from us as parents come from our individuality as people, and not necessarily our gender. For instance, you can have a soft empathetic mother baking in the kitchen, compared to a harsh cold businesswoman….or a nerdy science dad compared to a tough football-loving gym dad. Each of these parents will play a different role and teach a different lesson within the family.
Chantelle du Toit: I think most studies show the more “traditional” roles of parents as important. I agree that every individual parent has a different role and has a different influence on our kids, but moms are inherently still different from dads. Dads usually do the rough play for instance, although obviously there are certain families where this is different.
For instance, my own mom was a cold harsh businesswoman and my dad the softer one (although he is also a harsh businessman at work), but at home, she was still empathetic, present, and patient.
Brandi Cowan: I think there is a difference between “being around” and actually being “present” and how much that makes a difference. So I think that is something we can both agree upon and which has been demonstrated in numerous studies.
Chantelle du Toit: I’m still surprised that society has a totally different standard for what a good mom is compared to a good dad. You mentioned seeing kids alternate weekends. Here in South Africa, the general arrangement is, one time during the week, and every second weekend. But 1 time a week + 2 weekends = 8 days a month, which is only 96 days a year or 26% of the time. How do you parent and be involved if that is the only time you see your kid? On the other hand, I think it is sad when moms keep children away and dads have to fight for time with their kids. They should let dad drop the kids off and pick them up from school so that they have some more time with the kids.
Brandi Cowan: I actually was speaking to a friend from Germany and was told they have different expectations of a father’s role after a split as well. The normal is for children to be split 50/50 after separation unless there are dangerous circumstances.
Growing up in the U.S. my parents were split, and I saw my father 2 weekends a month. I know in the UK my estranged husband sees the kids alternate weekends, and I had to push him to come once a week for a few hours visitation as well because the kids needed more time with him. Here in Scotland, as long as he pays a small amount on a check that doesn’t even make a dent in their weekly food bill, and has “regular visitation,” he is seen as doing his duty.
I spent many nights lying awake wondering how as a mother I would be okay just writing a check and taking the kids out every other weekend. How I could feel like my job as their mother was complete. Personally, I just never could. There is so much more that goes into being a mom, and that made me realize that there is so much more that goes into being a good dad.
Chantelle du Toit: Yes I agree there is so much more to being a parent than paying for things and some visitation. It’s a huge responsibility. Here in South Africa, maintenance and visitation are 2 different things. The law compels you to pay maintenance. This is done by individual calculation, so kids’ expenses get added, then the court looks at affordability and sets an amount based on that. However, they can’t force a dad (or mom) to have a relationship with the kids though.
To be honest, the parent that the kids live with usually also pays for the extras not in the “agreement.” Such as lunches out or fun days, etc.
Brandi Cowan: Oh, believe me, I know!
I liked the points you made about a father treating his wife well teaches his son how to treat his own wife. A father’s treatment of the child’s mother will indirectly affect the mother-child relationship too. This applies to both fathers who are in the home, and those who are not.
Chantelle du Toit: I agree. A dad treating the mom with respect teaches his daughter how her husband/boyfriend should treat her too. Kids often reflect the behavior they see, so this is so important for both genders to learn from.
I was wondering, how do you experience the effect on your mother-child relationships?
Brandi Cowan: Well, that has been very dependent on what point I have been in my journey of becoming a single mom.
Directly after it happened, I was an emotional wreck, to say the least. I had a house full of bills, no income, I was in my last years of university, three small kids, and no family support.
Chantelle du Toit: That is very rough, especially with no support.
Brandi Cowan: That doesn’t even get into the emotional impact of having your entire world upended overnight. Those days, I was probably not the best mother. I was surviving and trying to get through the day. He was…..he wasn’t here. That’s all that matters.
At that point in time, I wasn’t eating, sleeping, and I just didn’t have any patience. So for that amount of time, my relationship with the kids suffered in some ways (not enough quality time, I was moody and snappy, didn’t play as many games or read stories).
But as that emotional storm died down, my kids got other benefits from me. They know I am always here, no matter what…a feeling they don’t have about their father. My daughter told me something very important the other day, and when I asked why she felt ok talking to me about it she said because she knows I won’t judge her “like Dad would.” My kids know my word is golden, and I always keep promises, while their dad often misses visitation and shows he does not keep his word in other ways.
So while I think initially our relationship suffered because I was suffering, in the end, it has probably gotten stronger in a sense….because I am who I am.
I do not think that journey is the same for every single mom. I think a lot of mothers would get lost in the suffering part…and that suffering would continue to bleed on to their children as a result.
Chantelle du Toit: I can imagine that you are not the same parent as before. In the suffering especially it is difficult to parent, and your kids are also suffering a loss. But I think it’s great that you came out stronger afterward.
Brandi Cowan: I will say that while the emotional bond is strong, there are still strains on the mother-child relationship due to the actions of their father. For instance, if he texts to say he isn’t coming, it is then left to me to break the bad news to the kids. So I become some harbinger of disappointment that I didn’t create. Or when finances are tight and the kids need new shoes or clothes, or something needs to be repaired, I have to figure out what we can give up to get that money…So the trips to the zoo, or days out are fewer and further between.
Chantelle du Toit: That makes sense. I think also you are the one then having to deal with your child’s disappointment or anger, which is not your fault, but as dad isn’t there to bear the brunt those feelings could then be directed at you.
Brandi Cowan: Precisely. Plus, I am the one who has to deal with all the bad behavior, acting out, teaching responsibility…all these lessons that make you “not your child’s friend.”
Chantelle du Toit: Yes exactly, it comes down to those very limited days that dad has with the kids, so it’s not his “problem.” It’s yours because you are the responsible and present parent.
The mere presence of a father is not enough but the level of involvement carries so much weight. Distractions like phones, etc. should be out the way and kids should get our full attention.
I also agree with what you said about attitude being important. The fact that dad wants to be there compared to “has to” be there. For me personally, the attitude with which something is done is just as, if not more, important to me than actually doing it. Even with something as simple as my husband making me a cup of coffee, for instance. I don’t want a cup that comes with an “OK, I’ll make you one if you I have to” attitude.
We also both agree being a father/daddy is more than just the title. It includes involvement.
Brandi Cowan: Yes, most certainly. In fact, I would say attitude and involvement are far more important than the quantity of time in the room.
I also liked the bit where you wrote about a father showing his failures benefiting his children. I thought it was a really good point not just for men to show their more emotional/sentimental side…but also that even our failures as parents can teach our children valuable lessons, depending on how we handle them.
Chantelle du Toit: Yes, very true. I think as parents we mirror a lot of behavior to our kids and how to deal with different aspects of life, disappointment, disagreement, etc.
Brandi Cowan: Overall, I think we both agree that a father is important in the increased academic success, better financial standing, increased emotional support, and less stress on the mother.
Chantelle du Toit: Yes, I agree.