Dr. Daniel Singley explains how having a consistent, attuned, and involved dad is good for the whole family system.
What it means to be a man has shown considerable change over the past 50 years, and nowhere is this change more apparent than in the area of fatherhood. As the recent trend toward father-centric “manvertising” on television shows, dads these days are now expected to be much more involved, nurturing, and emotionally available than their own fathers were likely to be. However, there still aren’t very many models of how to be a modern “Generative Father” and I see many fathers – especially new fathers of infants and babies – struggling to rectify the traditional, “old school” model of their own father’s behavior with the current expectation that they change diapers, sing, dance, read, soothe, and laugh even with very young children. Such dads often experience the phenomenon of gender role strain, which basically means that they experience anxiety about, and avoid behaviors which, cause them to feel unmanly.
In my therapy practice, I work with a lot of dads and couples navigating the transition to parenthood, and I commonly see a dynamic in which dad wants to be super involved with their child(ren), but isn’t quite sure how. My first step is to generally make sure that both he and his partner understand that beginning as early as during pregnancy and especially within the first year of a child’s life, having a highly involved and attuned father has been shown to predict a number of very positive outcomes for their children, the child’s mother, and even the father himself. A few of these benefits include:
- Higher IQ, school readiness, social skills, emotional regulation, empathy
- Increased attachment, emotional security, popularity, independence
- Increased confidence, parenting satisfaction, partner relationship satisfaction
- Fewer mental health issues
- Increased responsiveness to the child’s needs, confidence, and affection for the father
- Fewer mental health issues
The research is clear: Having a consistent, attuned, and involved dad is good for the whole family system. In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families developed a report titled The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children. The authors of that document synthesized a large amount of research related to fathers’ involvement with their children, and their list of the most important roles and behaviors which fathers of young children can enact are:
- Fostering a positive relationship with the child’s mother. You can accomplish this by clearly accentuating the positive and showing affection when interacting with your partner.
- Spending time with the child. Children see time spent with them as an indicator of your love for them, so try to spend time playing and having fun with them every day. Dads should maintain an active, physical playful style and work with their children to do household chores including household chores like washing dishes and cleaning up the house/yard.
- Nurturing the child. By being responsive to your child’s cries, hugging, feeding, and providing basic care, you are being a nurturing father. The more you respond calmly to misbehavior, the better adjusted your child will be.
- Disciplining appropriately. Maintain control of your emotions, body language, and your hands when you discipline. And remember that you can’t discipline an infant or newborn because they aren’t set up to retain the learning. Love, feed, and attend to these very young children and you’re doing what the child needs.
- Serving as a guide to the outside world. Engage in vigorous, physical play and encourage small steps toward autonomy. Tell kids about your own experiences as a child and in school, teach them about participating in a sport or other group activity that helps with working as part of a team.
- Protecting and providing. Beyond employment and providing financial resources, help baby-proof the home, attend the child’s medical appointments, and monitor the child’s social environment for potential issues. Dads should get help for any issues they are experiencing and provide their family with the best version of themselves possible.
- Being a role model. Promote the “mission” of your family by taking part in and discussing work, religious/spiritual activities, social involvement, and acknowledging to your child and partner when you make mistakes.
So, while couples commonly develop their own idiosyncratic ways to play with and care for their children, I encourage dads to simply review these points to determine what they’ve done that day in keeping with these behaviors as well as what they plan to do tomorrow. If dads can point to clear examples of how they’re doing these things each day, then they’re well on their way to being a great dad!
Daniel Singley, Ph.D., ABPP is a San Diego-based board certified psychologist and Director of The Center for Men’s Excellence. His research and practice focus on men’s mental health with a particular emphasis on reproductive psychology and the transition to fatherhood. He currently serves on the Board of the APA’s Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity as well as Postpartum Support International. He conducts trainings and presentations around the country to assist individuals and organizations to enhance their level of father inclusiveness and founded the grant-funded Basic Training for New Dads, Inc nonprofit in order to give new fathers the tools they need to be highly engaged with their infants as well as their partners. Follow him @MenExcel and www.facebook.com/MenExcel/