Why Are Researchers Still Obsessed with Proving that Good Fathers are Good for Kids?

By John Hoffman

So, yet another study has found that father involvement is beneficial for babies. This
particular one
found that toddlers whose fathers had been more engaged and sensitive scored higher on a sort of toddler IQ test called the Bayley Scales of Infant Development.

My reaction: So what? Tell me something I don’t already know. I’ve been reading this sort of thing for over 25 years. Why do we need to keep proving it again? I can’t believe researchers can still get money for this kind of research, or, more to the point, why they’d be interested. We already know that father involvement is good for children. Canadian academics did a good summary of the research ten years ago. There have been others as well. In 2017 we could, no doubt, add many more findings to the pile of evidence.

So, I have a message for North American and European academic community. “Yo! People! We do not need another study on the benefits of good parenting by dads! Stop!

father-2307205_1920
At the core of it we’re trying to make family life a little better — for children, mothers and fathers

This minute! Don’t fund even another single study like that!”

There. That was easy, wasn’t it? Ha!

Seriously though, this reminds me a bit of breastfeeding research. People are still falling all over themselves trying to “prove” that “breast is best.” That’s already been proven eight ways to Sunday. And mothers have bought in. Most want to and try to breastfeed. But many moms stop breastfeeding sooner than they’d planned to, usually because of problems. So the breastfeeding studies we actually need are ones that show us how to help more mothers prevent and solve breastfeeding problems so they can breastfeed for longer.

Likewise, with fathers, what we need is more studies that tell us more about how to help more dads be more effectively involved with their younger children and supportive of the mothers and, especially, how to support fathers who, for whatever reason, find it hard to positively involved.

Because, really, what are “we”— people who want to support father involvement —trying to accomplish? I really don’t think it’s anything as narrow as making babies smarter (which the above study seemed to be trying to prove). At the core of it we’re trying to make family life a little better — for children, mothers and fathers —by helping dads to be positively involved and to share the work (and joys!) of childrearing. We’ve come a long way in the right direction, but we’ve got further to go.

Exactly how we go about doing the kind of father involvement research that will be helpful is the real question. We already have a fair bit of research to show us at least part of the way. For example, it’s pretty clear that:

  • Parents (mothers or fathers) who feel supported tend to parent better. Research question: What helps fathers feel supported in their role and what are the best ways to provide that?
  • Fathers who have good relationships with the mother of their child tend to be more positively involved. Research question: What are the most effective ways to support father-mother or father-father relationships in the early days of parenting?
  • Mothers usually have a pretty strong influence on the way a father’s role develops. Research question: Is there a way to take advantage of this maternal influence on father involvement without adding to the burden that mothers of young children are already dealing with?
  • Services and programs for families tend to be mother-focused and aren’t always that good at being father-inclusive (Mind you, lots of people are trying to change that!). Research question: What are the barriers to making services for families more father-inclusive and how do we remove them?

Bottom line: Supporting fathers in meaningful ways (i.e. something more that posters and slogans), supporting mother-father relationships, and making family programs and services more father-inclusive would all be steps in the right direction.

I want to see some research on how best to do those things, including research on what dads think about their own involvement, what they say helps and hinders them. Because we really, really don’t need any more research about whether or not sensitive dad-infant interaction with is good for babies. We already know that it is.

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