In news that should really suprise no one, a new study has shown that dads can give their children an advantage at school by simply being more involved in his child’s life. In particular, researchers have shown that children do better at primary school if their dads interact with them more in activities like reading, drawing, telling stories, or even singing.
All children benefit from father time
Although this is starting to change, mothers still assume the primary caregiver role in many families, says Helen Norman,from Leeds University, who led the research. But if fathers actively engage in childcare, this “significantly increases the likelihood of children getting better grades in primary school. This is why encouraging and supporting fathers to share childcare with the mother, from an early stage in the child’s life, is critical.”
Researchers analyzed data from a representative sample of nearly 5,000 mother-father households in England. The data came from the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal birth cohort study that follows the lives of around 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-2002. Dads that regularly interacted with their three-year-olds helped their children to do better by the age of five. Similarly, dads that were involved at the age of five helped their kids improve their school scores at the age of seven.
The data shows that mums also have an impact on young children’s educational achievements. However, mother interaction had more of an impact on social behaviors and emotional support — dad time seemed to be linked more with educational success.
This hints at the idea that dads bring something different to the table — they tend to interact with children in different ways.
“There is also a strong possibility that fathers’ input to their children’s learning and development brings particular and unique benefits, as highlighted by previous research,” the study authors note.
Something else stood out during the research: dad interaction helped virtually all children, regardless of race, geography, socioeconomic status, etc. This shows just how robust this connection is. Oftentimes, these effects are notable in some populations more than others, and in some not at all. But in this case, the impact was ubiquitous. Dads spending time with their kids was found to always be of use.
Get dads involved
Researchers used robust statistical methods (structural equation modelling and path analysis) to measure all the relationships between the different variables (involvement, behaviour and educational attainment) whilst accounting for other variables that were likely to affect the child’s cognitive behaviour and educational attainment. In other words, they controlled for the effect of the child’s gender, ethnicity, age in the school year, socio-economic status the number of other children (siblings) in the household, whether the child had attended pre-school formal childcare provided by a nursery or registered childminder, and the father’s age. All of these were accounted for, and the results still stand.
The main takeaway, researchers say, is that dads should dedicate significant time to interacting with their children. The type of interaction is less important. It can be singing, playing, reading, or something else. What matters most is that the interaction exists, says Dr. Jeremy Davies, Head of Impact and Communications at the Fatherhood Institute, who co-authored the report.
“Our analysis has shown that fathers have an important, direct impact on their children’s learning. We should be recognising this and actively finding ways to support dads to play their part, rather than engaging only with mothers, or taking a gender-neutral approach,” Davies says.
The following activities were considered “interaction”:
- Telling stories (not from a book);
- Playing/listening to music, singing or doing other;
- Drawing, painting or making things;
- Playing with toys or games indoors;
- Playing sports or physically active games outdoors or indoors;
- Taking the child to the park or outdoor playground.
Of course, there are multiple barriers to fathers’ (and mothers’) childcare involvement. In particular — work. Fathers tend to manage their
work-care arrangements around work demands, but it didn’t really matter when the fathers interact with their children. If they work a lot during weekdays, they can spend more weekend time with the children. If they work weekends, weekdays are also fine.
There’s also a feedback loop. The earlier a father gets involved in the child’s life, the more likely he is to be involved later when the child is older.
The report also highlights some aspects that can have a detrimental impact on children’s educational development. Things like poverty, for instance, were found to have a big impact. In this type of context, parental involvement becomes all the more important.
The report was published here and has not yet been peer-reviewed.
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