Celebrating Fatherhood and the Role of Fathers

June 12, 2013

Though Richard Nixon left office under a shroud of controversy, he did leave one lasting legacy that over 70 million United States men can thank him for: Father’s Day.

In 1972, Nixon signed a proclamation making Father’s Day a national holiday, 58 years after the second Sunday in May was declared Mother’s Day. Father’s Day had been celebrated prior to this, but Nixon made it official.

Though these holidays in May and June seem mainstream in our culture now, there was a movement in the 1920s and 1930s to scrap the separate celebrations all together and create one holiday, Parents’ Day.

My father and I at my college graduation

The Great Depression interfered with this campaign, and Americans now spend over $1 billion each June on gifts for the man of the house.

My father is one-half of a wonderful parenting duo (along with my mom). Plenty of families are set up like mine, but there is a plethora of family dynamics. An uncle, brother, or friend of the family may be the father-figure in your life. Dante Spetter, who teaches Human Development and Developmental Psychopathology, spoke with me about how a father or father-figure plays into a child’s life.

How does a father contribute to the development of a child?

Both parents are very important. Generally, mothers do more of the explicit nurturing, while fathers tend to be more involved in play, particularly physical play and rough and tumble play, relative to mothers. However, fathers do much more hands-on caregiving now than they did a generation ago: changing diapers, getting up at night, taking children to the doctors, sharing drop-offs and pick-ups, and helping with homework.

Prior to the late 1970s, most research on fathers compared children with fathers versus children whose fathers had died or deserted. In the late 1970, however, early childhood research began to focus on a father’s role and not just “father absence” as a variable for investigation. In her doctoral dissertation at Brandeis University, Sheila Brachfeld-Child, now senior lecturer in psychology at Wellesley College, asked mothers and fathers simply “to have fun with your baby.” Completed in early 1980s, it was her impression that for many of the fathers, it was their first and only solo outing with the infants. The fathers’ play style was very active, throwing the children in the air or rolling on the floor. The mothers’ play was more “teaching” and fine motor based: finger plays, singing, and sitting quietly.

And when looking at more recent early childhood literature from Michael Lamb, head of the department of social and developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge, children turned to fathers when they wanted to play and turned to mothers when they were stressed or upset.

How does the role of a father factor into the lives of their children once they are grown?

In the second part of adolescence, teens tend to look to their peers as to who they should be at that time, and look to their parents as to who they will become.

When children become parents, they look to their parents as to what they should and should not do. A lot of grown children will look to their fathers as how men should act. See, for example, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson (also a PBS documentary by the same name). For young girls in particular, their fathers can make a huge impact on their self-esteem and how they grow into women. There are also interviews and autobiographies of Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, and many prominent women scientists that emphasize fathers’ influence on girls.

What’s the impact of the mother-father relationship on children?

A Harvard Extension School father and his daughter at Commencement

The more positive the relationship is, the more children will see and understand what a working romantic and working collaborative relationship looks like. When parents work as a well-functioning team, children learn how to work things out. Of course, it is natural for couples to argue. The main thing is to ensure both parties model a respectful attitude during disagreements, so that their children learn how to resolve conflicts in a healthy manner.

Some of the research suggests that “parenting behavior” is the link between parent-parent relationships and adolescent outcomes.

Parents who are distressed, depressed or upset by their poor adult relationships bring fewer resources to the table for parenting. Their parenting behavior is less ideal, and this is what leads to poorer teen outcomes. For example, research by Arriaga and Foshee (2004) examining antecedents of teen dating violence has shown that teens whose parents engage in domestic violence are at risk for violent dating relationships.

On the other end of the spectrum, strong marital quality and spousal support generally have a positive effect on child development. In a Dutch study by Hakvoort, Bos, Van Balen, and Hermanns (2010), mothers’ reports of their marital satisfaction and their reports of the father-child relationship were related to better psychosocial outcomes for the children.

How does a father-son relationship differ from the father-daughter relationship?

There is a lot of variability in father-children relationships. Many factors play into how a father will raise his children, like the age of the father or family size. When it comes to parenting in general, there’s a lot more variability than predictability.

For example, fathers may be stricter with their daughters around adolescence. Fathers may also play a formative role in how a daughter will handle future romantic relationships (Arriaga and Foshee, 2004).

Around adolescence, sometimes sons like to assert they can be their own man, but eventually fathers and sons can develop a buddy relationship. And as I mentioned before with Raising Cain, the relationship between a father and child can really vary and there’s no set model that’s right.

What are some ways children can express their love to their fathers?

It is just as important for men to hear and be shown affection from their children as it is for women.

It’s great when a child does something that says to the father, “Today is your day, and I love you all year long.” Any type of gift, note, or gesture that reflects the father’s interests and the child’s acknowledgement of their different interests is great. For example, I took my stepson to buy a gift for his father when he was much younger. He wanted to buy two action figures, so that he could include his dad in his play. Even though he was young, he was thinking about trying to include his dad in an activity he enjoyed.

Words are very important too. Some men back off from expressing their affection, especially to sons, and their sons then have a harder time expressing affection to their fathers directly. This is true whether it’s verbal or physical affection.

For modern teens, texts or e-mail can be helpful. Forwarding an article or a song may be less anxiety provoking than saying “I love you” out loud, but clearly says “I am thinking of you.” Because teens do this all the time, it doesn’t have to feel like a “big deal,” but fathers will love the connection. This is especially true when teens and fathers do not share a household, and can set the stage for parent-child connection, too.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that many different people can be in the father role. Father’s Day is the perfect opportunity to remember the other important men in your life and say, “I love you.”