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Research: This is how fathers influence children’s development

A new study by Michigan State University scholars shows that fathers play a surprisingly large role in their children’s development, from language and cognitive growth in toddlerhood to social skills.

African-family

“There’s this whole idea that grew out of past research that dads really don’t have direct effects on their kids, that they just kind of create the tone for the household and that moms are the ones who affect their children’s development,” said Claire Vallotton, associate professor and primary investigator on the research project. “But here we show that fathers really do have a direct effect on kids, both in the short term and long term.”

The study found that fathers’ parenting-related stress had a harmful effect on their children’s cognitive and language development when the children were two to three years old, even when the mothers’ influences were taken into account. This impact varied by gender; fathers’ influence, for example, had a larger effect on boys’ language than girls’ language.

The findings have been published online in two academic journals, Early Childhood Research Quarterly and Infant and Child Development.

Michigan State University researcher Tamesha Harewood

Michigan State University researcher Tamesha Harewood

According to the paper published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, the findings of this study contribute to the small but growing collection of research affirming the effects of fathers’ characteristics and father-child relationship qualities on children’s social development, rather than just the fathers’ residence in the home or presence in the child’s life.

Tamesha Harewood, lead author on the paper in Infant and Child Development, said fathers, in addition to mothers, should be included in parenting research and family-intervention programs and policies.

“A lot of family-risk agencies are trying get the dad more involved, but these are some of the things they could be missing,” said Harewood, a researcher in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “When the agency is talking with the dad, it’s not just about providing for your child economically, but also to be there for your child, to think about how stress or depression might be influencing your child. In order to understand and help children in their development, there needs to be a comprehensive view of the whole family, including both mom and dad.”

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