Childhood: The role of fathers

by Sue Roffey

In the Childhood chapter in the book, I write about what is needed throughout childhood and adolescence for children to thrive and contribute to a safe and equal society. I have said what we know about the most effective parenting styles that enhance independence, resilience and compassion. But there is a major omission I hope to address here.

I have said that children need a village to take responsibility for their upbringing, but did not emphasise the role of fathers, and how our current working and caring arrangements mitigate against their full involvement.

In the pandemic we have heard many times about how it has been mothers who have carried the load of both home-schooling and caring for the family. The Fawcett society (August 2020) summarise research which indicates that the disparity between the amount of time mothers and fathers did unpaid child-care was exacerbated during the lockdown, and this was the case whether the mother was a keyworker or working from home. This will be a surprise to no-one.

When I did my Master’s, many years ago, I researched shared parenting for separated and divorced families. I discovered that some fathers suddenly realised that clean clothes did not just appear for children, and that lunch boxes had to be bought and packed with nutritious foods kids would eat. Other men had turned to their mothers, sisters or new partners to do the bulk of the care. I asked all participants in the study if their lives had been made easier by their ex-partner taking child-care responsibility half the time. All the mothers said: “Of course, it gave them space to pursue other things”. Many of the fathers did not understand the question: “What do you mean, made life easier? – of course not!”

This inequality of care-giving impacts both on children, and on the lives of women and the opportunities afforded them How many times have we heard that a pregnant woman suddenly finds herself without a job. Rarely because she is expecting a child, of course, as this is not company policy but other reasons are found. I was once asked at an interview how I might cope with combining family life (I had two primary age children) and the demands of a year of study. I wrote to the college to ask if they would have asked the same question of a male candidate. They apologised, but I am sure that questions like this still happen in many contexts.

Only when both parents take equal responsibility for bringing up the next generation will women have full life choices. Clearly that is a central issue for society. But what is the affect on children’s development?

Paternal engagement is not straightforward, any more than maternal. What do fathers actually need to do? We know that the early weeks and months after birth are dominated by a feeding and sleeping routine that takes up most of a mother’s time, especially if she is breast-feeding, and fathers at best play a supportive role. But what happens after these very early days? Do fathers engage interactively with their infants of both genders or just wait until they can take their son to a football field? Do they do their fair share of cooking and cleaning and provide a role model for domestic equality? Do they have high levels of emotional literacy that demonstrate examples of patience, humour and positive conversation or disappear when things get challenging?

The School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley define an ‘engaged father’  as one who “feels responsible for and behaves responsibly toward his child, is emotionally engaged and physically accessible, provides material support to sustain the child’s needs, is involved in childcare, and exerts influence in child rearing decisions “(CalSWEC-Berkely.edu).

If that happens, what is the impact on children and young people? The Supporting Father Involvement Project, in four counties of California, found the following:

  • Greater empathy
  • Less gender role stereotyping
  • More awareness of needs and rights of others
  • More generous ” Higher self-esteem
  • More self-control and less impulsivity
  • Increased curiosity
  • Increased exploration of the world around them
  • Less hesitance and fear in new situations
  • Greater tolerance for stress and frustration
  • More willingness to try new things
  • Higher verbal skills
  • Higher scores on assessments of cognitive competence

For fathers and mothers there were also major benefits including less stress, less anxiety and improved relationships.

It seems that having fathers actively and positively involved with their children does indeed help create a better world. So what needs to happen? Following the format of each chapter I am going to suggest what would make a difference at all levels. Please feel free to suggest additions to these!

What might governments do?
  • Make paid paternal leave mandatory for the first three months of a child’s life
  • Ensure that laws on equal pay are enacted
What might companies do?
  • Offer job-shares as routine practice
  • Avoid ‘presentism’ – having people stay in the workplace for long hours regardless of need
  • Be flexible about child-care so that neither gender are disadvantaged when they need to take time off
  • Senior male staff model responsible parenting.
What might schools do?
  • Make child development a valued subject on the curriculum for all
  • Ensure all students have access to social and emotional learning
What might families do?
  • Discuss and agree the home-work-childcare balance prior to having children
  • Provide good role models for the next generation.

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