Involved Dads Give Kids an Edge

Megan Brooks

September 16, 2011

September 15, 2011 — New data from a long-running study of Canadian families suggest that fathers play a key role in their children's intellect and behavior.

Compared with children with absentee fathers, children whose fathers were present and actively involved in their lives during early and middle childhood had fewer behavior problems and higher intellectual abilities as they grew older, even among children of lower socioeconomic status.

"Regardless of whether fathers lived with their children, their ability to set appropriate limits and structure their children's behaviour positively influenced problem-solving and decreased emotional problems, such as sadness, social withdrawal and anxiety," first author Erin Pougnet, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, noted in a statement.

Erin Pougnet

In comments to Medscape Medical News, Ms. Pougnet said programs that teach fathers positive parenting skills and that are attractive and accessible to families from a range of socioeconomic strata, "could go a long way to enhance children's later development."

The findings were published in the July issue of the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science.

Dads' Influence "Enormous"

"The evidence from this and other studies points to the enormous benefits of father involvement in children's development and mental well-being," Mariana Brussoni, PhD, from the Child & Family Research Institute and University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was not involved in the study, told Medscape Medical News.

"It is crucial for policies and programs to consider how they can support fathers to remain involved in children's lives. Many of the existing programs are more focused towards mothers and their needs, which is undoubtedly important. However, fathers cannot continue to be relegated to a secondary parenting role," Dr. Brussoni said.

Families headed by a single mother are becoming increasingly common in North America and elsewhere. In researching children and their families, Ms. Pougnet said she found that the vast majority of the existing research focused on mothers and mothering.

"Fathers were largely left out of studies for various reasons," she said. "At the same time, in my clinical work with children and families, I noticed the extremely important role played by fathers."

Ms. Pougnet and colleagues examined the prospective association between fathers' presence in the home and parenting and their children's subsequent cognitive and behavioral functioning.

The researchers analyzed data on 138 children (76 girls, 62 boys) and their parents, who were participating in the Concordia Longitudinal Risk Project, an intergenerational study of low-income families in Montreal.

When the children were between 3 and 5 years old and between 9 and 13 years old, they took intelligence tests, and their parents completed questionnaires about home life, parenting, and couple conflict. School teachers provided information on behavior in school.

Greater Effect in Girls

For girls only, fathers' presence in middle childhood predicted fewer internalizing problems in preadolescence, the researchers found.

"Girls whose fathers lived with them when they were in middle childhood (ages 6 - 10 years) demonstrated less sadness, worry, and shyness at school as preteens (ages 9 - 13 years) compared with girls whose fathers did not live with them," Ms. Pougnet commented. "The same was not true for boys."

The reason for the gender difference is unclear. "One hypothesis is that girls experience stress and negative emotions differently than boys when their parents' relationship breaks down, and when they are faced with things such as discord between their parents, mothers' difficulties upon family disruption, and negative parent–child relationships. There is some research to support this hypothesis," Ms. Pougnet said.

For both boys and girls, fathers' positive parental control predicted higher performance IQ scores (but not verbal IQ scores) and fewer internalizing problems more than 6 years later.

Dr. Brussoni said, "The fact that there were no significant findings for verbal IQ is not that surprising. In very simplistic terms, fathers have a larger role in getting kids engaged in physical activity and play than mothers, which may be more conducive to the development of skills reflected in performance IQ," she said.

The study also showed that fathers with more negative parenting styles when kids were young and who were absent when kids were 6 to 10 years old had children with more internalizing problems at ages 9 to 13 years.

Ms. Pougnet emphasized that "a father's absence from the home does not necessarily mean that he is absent from his children's lives."

She also made the point that "there are countless other things that factor into child development, notably mothers, who have been shown in a huge amount of research to have a very important influence on their children."

"The more that both parents can show parenting skills, such as setting up consistent expectations for their children's behaviour, appropriate limit-setting, and the effective use of rewards and consequences to structure and guide their children's behaviour, the better for their children's intellectual and emotional development," Ms. Pougnet said.

Dr. Brussoni said the fact that the researchers collected data from several different sources (mothers, fathers, children, and teachers) "adds strength to the findings."

She also noted that the researchers made efforts to control for confounding factors such as socioeconomic status, quality of home environment, parent education, and couple conflict. "What this means is that they have removed the effects of these factors from their analyses before testing the significance of the variables that they were focusing on. This is another strength of the analysis," Dr. Brussoni said.

The study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The authors and Dr. Brussoni have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Can J Behav Sci. 2011;43:173-182. Abstract

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