A new U.K. study suggests a new father’s adjustment to being a parent and his confidence in this role, rather than the amount of direct childcare they give, seems to be important during a child’s early years.
Investigators discovered pre-teens whose dads embrace parenthood may be less prone to behavioral issues.
The nature of parenting in a child’s early years is thought to influence their short- and long-term well-being and mental health, which are in turn linked to development and educational attainment.
But it’s not entirely clear what impact the father’s role might have, as much of the research to date has tended to characterize paternal involvement in a child’s upbringing as one-dimensional.
The researchers therefore drew on data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) study, which has been tracking the health of nearly 15,000 children since birth, to assess several aspects of paternal involvement. The study is published in the online journal BMJ Open.
The parents of 10,440 children living with both their mother and dad at the age of 8 months were asked to complete a comprehensive questionnaire about their and their child’s mental health. The questionnaire explored attitudes to parenting; time spent on childcare; their child’s behavior and development; as well as details of household income/education.
When the children were aged nine and 11, their behavior was assessed using the strength and difficulties questionnaire (SDQ). This covers emotional symptoms, behavior (conduct) problems, hyperactivity, peer relationship issues, and helpfulness (pro-social behavior).
Fathers’ parental involvement was measured by asking them to rate their level of agreement with 58 statements, reflecting the amount of direct childcare they engaged in, including household chores; their attitudes to parenting; the relationship with their child; and how they felt about the birth eight weeks and eight months afterwards.
The final analysis was based on almost 7,000 nine year-olds and nearly 6,500 of the same children at the age of 11.
Three key factors emerged in relation to the children’s SDQ scores:
- fathers’ emotional response to the baby and their parenting role;
- how much time the dads spent on direct childcare;
- and how well they adjusted to their new role, including how confident they felt in their abilities as a parent and partner.
Investigators discovered a father’s emotional response and confidence in their new role were most strongly associated with lower odds of behavioral problems when their children reached nine and 11 years of age.
A high paternal factor one score was associated with 21 percent and 19 percent lower odds of a higher SDQ score at the ages of nine and 11, respectively. Similarly, a high paternal factor three score was associated with 28 percent lower odds of a higher SDQ score at both time points.
When researchers adjust for potentially influential factors, such as age at fatherhood, educational attainment and household income, hours worked and sex of the child, the results remained consistent.
Researchers noted, however, that the study is observational and no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. Moreover, researchers note the study dates back 25 years, and parenting styles may have changed, so the findings may therefore not be widely generalizable.
But they write, “The findings of this research study suggest that it is psychological and emotional aspects of paternal involvement in a child’s infancy that are most powerful in influencing later child behavior, and not the amount of time that fathers are engaged in childcare or domestic tasks in the household.”
Source: British Medical Journal (BMJ)