Quality of father-child relationships just as important as mom’s connection

June 17, 2022

As we approach Father’s Day—it’s this Sunday and something other than a tie or socks as a gift would be appreciated—their roles as parents have shifted to become more involved in raising their children.

Brenda Volling, a University of Michigan psychologist who has studied fathers for decades, said research shows the importance dads—and not just moms—have in their children’s emotional development.

How have men adapted to changes in their role/identity?

I think being a father has always been central to men’s identity development. Becoming a father is a huge developmental milestone for men, as well as women, and most men do not take their responsibilities as fathers or being a “good dad” lightly.

I think what has changed is not so much the centrality of the fatherhood role to a man’s identity development but how accepting society has become in allowing men to be fathers, to take on that part of their identity and parent their children without suspicion or judgment from others, and to even expect men to be more involved with their children. We still have a ways to go. 

I would like us to get to the point where men can be fathers in public and people don’t gawk in amazement and think “look at that guy, he actually does things with his kids, wow!” Men are perfectly capable of soothing crying children, providing them with guidance and advice, and teaching them life lessons. We just need to let them do it. 

Have mothers been more receptive to fathers taking on more tasks in raising children? In other words, are they relinquishing some of the duties to have equal sharing of domestic labor? 

This is a good question and I’m not sure where we are at with this one. We have seen a rise in research on co-parenting, the ability for two parents to work together while parenting their children, and what we know from this work is that when men and women are supportive co-parents, they have more satisfying marriages, report better mental health, less parenting stress, and their children have better social and emotional well-being. 

I recently read a post on a parenting blog about “mommy martyrs,” and the following story, which if true, tells me we really have a long way to go here. Supposedly, a mother was tending to her sick toddler, who eventually fell asleep on top of her. When she realized she had to pee, she didn’t know what to do so she called for her husband to get her a diaper. She decided to pee in the diaper herself rather than allow her husband, the father of this child, to take the toddler so she could go to the bathroom. I guess the notion here is that only a mother can truly know how to care for her child and be the only one who can do so. We know this is not true. 

That is an interesting scenario. So then how important is the father’s role in child development? 

Some of us have been doing research on fathering and children’s development for nearly four decades and the research is clear here. What fathers do with their children, not simply how much time they are there with them, is incredibly important to healthy child development. It is the quality of the father’s relationships with his children that truly matters. 

Does he take the time to listen to his children so they learn to be empathic, or play games and be silly with them so they understand role-taking in social relationships and the importance of humor? Does he read to them and teach them language or teach them persistence and how to tolerate frustration when things don’t always go their way? These are developmentally supportive parenting skills that if any person, regardless of gender, engages in with children, will support healthy child development. 

Some still appear to believe, including many of our social service agencies, that the only contribution that a man can make in supporting children is financial. This is a fallacy. Children form deep emotional attachments to their fathers and their mothers, and when they are emotionally attached to both parents, they do better and have less behavioral and emotional problems. 

Describe the challenges that fathers face these days, such as raising a family during the pandemic or the financial burdens from higher living expenses. Are they feeling overwhelmed and/or stressed?

Of course, they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed if they are home with their children during the pandemic. They are worrying about the health and safety of their families, and trying to balance work and family life but have been doing so in one place. 

I’ve seen a lot of press about how women have had to pick up most of the burden of child care during the pandemic and I absolutely believe that to be the case because in our society, we still expect women to be primary caregivers. Until we believe that both men and women are capable of care work, this inequity will continue to exist. But the idea that fathers were not there caring for their families during the pandemic I think is ridiculous. 

I truly wish we could get to the point where we aren’t pitting men against women in the parenting arena, in terms of who does more, but start thinking about families; what it is that parents, men and women, or grandparents and other family members must do together to care for children. Some days it’s you, other days it’s me, but in the end, it is all of us trying to do the best we can to raise these kids.  

You’ve studied child development for many years—and most research has involved the mother-child relationship. Have you seen a shift in more research about father-child relationships? 

I definitely think we are seeing a shift in research and more studies are indeed including fathers, or at least, researchers are acknowledging the limitations of mother-only studies when fathers haven’t been included. But it is still pretty dismal in my opinion because including fathers in research is often optional or an after-thought rather than viewed as a way of advancing the science on parenting. 

I’m a scientist, so having data is everything. If we don’t include fathers in research studies, we don’t have data, and if we don’t have data, then we are limited in the questions we can ask about parenting. If you only have data on mothers in front of you, well then, I guess you have to ask how important it is for children when mothers do this or that vs. what happens when the family and multiple caregivers are doing this, that, and something entirely different (e.g., co-parenting). 

The next generation of developmental scientists is starting to realize how limiting this research is in answering questions about parenting and children’s development. I am seeing more young scholars taking on this challenge and it is truly gratifying to see the commitment.