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How dads affect kids



15 May 2012

Fathers are fundamentally important to their children. Good or bad, living at home or living away, alive or dead, happy or sad… every dad matters and has a huge influence on his kids’ development. Dad Info takes a look at the research…

The relationship children have with their father affects their self-esteem, how well they do at school, even whether they are able to form happy, long-lasting relationships as adults.

Fathers (biological dads, step-dads, and other important father figures) can be a massive force for good, and bad, in their children’s lives. Here are some of the ways that dad influence operates.

Good-enough dads

A good-enough dad – like a good-enough mum – helps provide for his child and spend time with them. But above all he helps them feel safe, competent and lovable.

Good-enough dads can lose their cool like any parent. But, on the whole, they keep their tempers and set reasonable and clear boundaries. Good-enough dads spend regular focused time with their children and are great listeners. They take them out, visit their schools, look after them at home and talk and read with them. They know that, within their families, they are modelling half the world’s population – the male sex – showing (not telling) boys how to be good men, and girls how a good man will treat them.

Father, like Mother, is one of the two people in the world most likely to love their child madly and stay loyal to them for life. Even men who rarely see their children usually think about them a lot. And disadvantaged dads love their children just as much as more skilled or confident fathers. 

How dads affect newborn babies  

Research shows that good enough fathering helps children develop:

  • better friendships
  • fewer behaviour problems
  • better results at school
  • higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction
  • lower chance of becoming criminals or abusing drugs
  • more satisfying adult relationships   

But the most important thing a father can give their children is self-esteem, according to Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed: The Making of the Modern Father.

“Fathers have a huge impact on their kids’ self-esteem,” she says, “step-fathers too: maybe the child feels: ‘my parents love me because they’re my mum and dad, but my step-dad doesn’t have to like me. Maybe the way he sees me, is how I really am…'”

“The more time fathers spend with their children, the greater the their impact. It’s called the ‘dose effect” says Burgess, “the more dads interact with their kids, the more of an influence they are”

“This dose effect doesn’t have to involve doing anything special, or expensive things. It’s about hanging out, doing stuff together and chatting as the need arises. Just being there means you’re passing on all sorts of things to your children” says Burgess. “So you have to be very conscious of everything you say and do.”

“For example, dads who take an interest in their child’s education have a powerful positive impact on their achievement at school – particularly boys.”

Supporting my child’s education: what can I do?

Bad dads

Because fathers have such a huge influence on their children, negative parenting by fathers can cause a great deal of damage. Research has shown that fathers’ harsh parenting has a very strong effect on children’s aggression, and that negative fathering is linked with low self-esteem. Many teenagers who get into trouble have (or have had) either negative or not enough fathering.

“If you want to keep your child off drugs or out of gangs, the best way is to build a strong, positive relationship with them as a tiny child, then maintain that relationship as they grow up” says Burgess.

The other side of this coin is that kids are incredibly sensitive to their father’s approval or disapproval, his harshness or criticism, and whether they feel he has abandoned them or takes little interest in their lives. “If a father rarely focuses on his child, they often perceive that as evidence that they’re not a very important person” says Burgess, “and fathers who take little in their children’s education are setting them up to fail.”

Abandoning a child is really damaging: research has shown that many kids whose fathers have died fare better than those whose fathers have left.

Drugs: recognising and dealing with problems

No dads

Some fathers (like some mothers) really should be kept away from their children for the kids’ safety, but experts believe this should be a last resort. That’s because children who have little or no contact with their fathers are usually very upset by this – although they may not admit this easily.

‘No dad’ children are more likely than other children to have difficulties with friendships and to get involved in bullying. They also tend to;

  • demonise or idealise their father
  • blame themselves for his absence
  • suffer substantial grief, distress and self-doubt – even into adulthood

“It’s very bad for children to feel that their father left them deliberately, and they often blame themselves” says Burgess. “Many think:” ‘What’s wrong with me? What did I do? Why didn’t he love me enough to stay?’ This can be torture for some children and is seriously undermining.”

Overall, the evidence shows that fathers have a major impact on their children’s future health and happiness. Dads matter – there’s no doubt about that.

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