By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
Fatherly love is critical to a child's development. In fact, it’s one of the single greatest influences. What’s more, a father's love sometimes outweighs a mother's in terms of child development. These are just a few of the findings from a September 2011 study published last month in Personality and Social Psychology Review.
“It’s not that mothers aren’t important – they are – no one would ever argue that they aren’t,” study co-author Professor Ronald P. Rohner is quick to point out, but in his long-term research on acceptance-rejection theory across 13 nations, he’s uncovered some interesting news about a father's parenting role.
For one, when fathers act as nurturing (primary or secondary) caregivers, their kids benefit in terms of social-emotional and cognitive development, according to Rohner. Does this seem obvious? It’s not, he insists.
For about 300 years now in the U.S. and the western world, we’ve collectively assumed that kids mainly need a loving mom for positive child development. In just the past 10 years, though, we’ve learned that mindset is fundamentally wrong, Rohner says. “Dads have as great or greater influence in a variety of contexts,” he says, “so we need to encourage dads to get involved in caring for their kids in a loving way. … And we need to encourage moms to let dads play that role.”
What’s more, young adults who remember feeling accepted by their dads show a greater sense of well-being, and a greater sense of satisfaction and happiness than those who remember acceptance by their mothers, Rohner says.
Rohner’s research centers mainly on parental acceptance-rejection theory – and hinges on a child’s perception of each parent’s actions in four areas: warmth and affection, hostility and aggression, indifference and neglect, and the child’s general sense of being loved.
Across cultures, national boundaries, and families, these four areas have proven important in children’s perception of their parents’ affection, he says, and translates to a cluster of seven personality and behavior traits – either positive or negative – in the kids. If a child rates his parent positively, then he’s likely to show low hostility and aggression; independence; positive self-esteem; positive self-adequacy; emotional stability; emotional responsiveness; and a positive worldview. If that child rates his parent as cold, aggressive, indifferent, and generally unloving, though, then the opposite of those seven traits tend to surface, with the child exhibiting increased anxiety, insecurity, hostility, and anger; less emotional stability; poor self-esteem; and dependence issues.
“Everywhere in the world, kids who feel rejected by their parents tend to have mental health problems,” Rohner says. “Fathers show up more than mothers in these situations: if kids feel rejected by dad, they’re more likely to have behavior problems, delinquencies, depression and depressed affect, and substance abuse [problems].”
Results from more than 500 studies have established that, in many cases, a father’s perceived love (or lack thereof) can have greater impact than a mother's. The enduring question for Rohner has been: why? Rohner’s work with the International Father Acceptance Rejection Project, which has conducted research in 13 nations, has allowed Rohner and his colleagues to proffer an explanation. It has to do with the child’s perceived interpersonal power and prestige of each parent. Basically, if a child perceives Dad to have more interpersonal power and prestige than Mom, then Dad’s level of acceptance (or rejection) will have more sway over the child’s development. And vice-versa – Mom may be the one with higher perceived interpersonal power and prestige, and then the child’s perceived acceptance (or rejection) from Mom will have more influence. Could other factors play a part as well? Absolutely, says Rohner. His research continues.
But armed with this info, Rohner says there are a few important takeaways for parents. First, a child’s misbehavior shouldn't automatically be attributed to the mother's parenting, he says, warning that there’s way too much “mother bashing” in the world today. In many cases, a second look at the father's parenting may be in order.
Second, if parents notice the cluster of seven negative traits in their child, it’s worth investigating. “If parents see that in their kids,” he says, “the odds are that their kids are experiencing some significant rejection in some context. … And kids can very often tell you about it if you ask in the right way.”
But most important is the good news: that dad’s love matters. “Bottom line,” he says: “Dads, get involved. Get involved in a loving way in caregiving for your kids if you want to maximize the likelihood of healthy social-emotional and cognitive development of your children.”