The “dad factor” – a major ingredient for children’s successful learning

The evidence is conclusive about the importance of fathers to children’s education. But research shows how policy and practice lag behind.
Big D2112, flickr.com, CC BY-ND 2.0
Big D2112, flickr.com, CC BY-ND 2.0

Having a highly involved father definitely improves children’s learning. A series of major, long-term studies in the US, Sweden and the UK have established beyond doubt that such children achieve better examination results.

Children with an involved dad in their lives also enjoy many other advantages that can contribute to learning: fewer behaviour problems, lower criminality and substance abuse, better friendships with better-adjusted children, higher self-esteem and life satisfaction as well as greater capacity for empathy.

“Is there a magic ingredient that only dads can offer?”

Less clear is whether fathers bring something uniquely rooted in their gender, in “being a man”, to children’s learning or whether their contribution is based, for example, on being a second pair of hands at home. Additionally, a big question is how policy-makers can maximise what involved fatherhood can bring to learning. A new cross-national study by the Fatherhood Institute, the UK’s leading think tank on fatherhood, suggests that policy and practice are failing in all developed countries to mobilise the “dad factor” for children and their education.

Is there a magic ingredient that only dads can offer? Research from the US and the UK, looking for unique “dad factors”, has found that fathers in these countries tend to make learning more fun than mothers, probably because the prevailing culture of masculinity is playful and “jokey”. Swedish fathers, by contrast, tend to be less playful with their children. This may reflect the substantially greater time Swedish dads spend caring for their offspring, which may mean that they do not need to “get their attention” through playful behaviour.

It’s unclear whether dads’ “maleness” matters

Some research has found that (Western) fathers tend to use bigger words than mothers when communicating with their young children, which may benefit their language and literacy development. Again, no-one is sure whether this is “something men do” or whether it’s a symptom of the average father not knowing his young child’s capacities as well as the average mother does. There is some evidence that fathers who spend a great deal of time caring for their infants and toddlers are more likely to adjust their vocabulary downwards. Generally, gender differences in parenting styles are diminishing as gender roles become less polarised.

Research into same-sex parenting, whether by men or women, challenges the view that there is something essential and irreplaceable about fatherhood (and motherhood). Children raised by two mothers or two fathers typically do just as well on all measures as children raised by heterosexual couples. And, of course, single parents of both sexes can and do raise children very successfully.

This does not render fathers (or mothers) unimportant. A new US study has found that teenagers who feel they matter to their father or stepfather typically have significantly better mental health.

The US research, led by Professor William Fabricius of Arizona State University, highlights that policy makers and practitioners could enhance the mental health and resilience of young people by encouraging greater engagement by fathers in the lives of adolescents.

Fathers’ educational achievement is key to children’s learning

The crucial element that fathers currently bring to their children’s learning is their own level of education. Nothing matches it, according to Adrienne Burgess, Research Director at the Fatherhood Institute. “The father’s education is a more powerful predictor of a child’s learning prospects even than the education level attained by the mother who is probably spending more time with the child,” explains Ms Burgess.

“That’s not only because an educated father, like an educated mother, is likely to parent more positively and talk with and read to his young child more frequently and with greater skill than a less-educated father. It’s also because a father’s education level consistently predicts the quality of mother-child interactions, and also because better educated fathers are more likely to earn well. This goes a long way to enabling his family to create a positive learning environment at home and his child to participate in, sometimes costly, stimulating activities outside home that we know promote better attainment for children. Fathers’ income still really matters because in the UK, for example, only one mother in five brings home even half the family income.”

“The crucial element that fathers currently bring to their children’s learning is their own level of education.”

The research on the importance of parental education to learning highlights that the benefits of parenting to children spring not only from having mum and dad’s time. It’s also about what they are doing during that time. Is it stimulating or is it spent passively watching TV or with adults squabbling around them?

This sets a challenge for policy makers, particularly as fathers become more involved in child care. They must ensure that services which have traditionally supported disadvantaged mothers also engage with, and support, disadvantaged fathers, so these men are as skilled as possible in engaging their children in developmental activities. We know that when less educated mothers are not well supported, their children’s learning suffers. The same is likely to be the case when less educated fathers are poorly supported.

Nonetheless, the time that a dad – indeed any parent – spends with children does matter. The 2016 Fairness in Families Index (FIFI) shows the difficulties men experience in practising fatherhood. In the UK, bottom of the 15-country childcare table, for every hour a UK mother spends looking after children, dad spends just 24 minutes. In Portugal, which tops that table, the ratio is 39 father-minutes per mother-hour, 60 per cent higher.

Gender pay gap and leave discrimination create “father deficit”

The continuing father involvement deficit across developed countries reflects three key factors: the gender pay gap between men and women which worsens when people become parents; unequal entitlements to parenting leave during the first year when long-term parenting patterns and core competencies are established; mother-focussed services that can easily marginalise fathers and send a message that dads don’t really matter.

“All of these factors are common problems, though they differ in severity, across the Global North and also – though not measured in the FIFI study – across the Global South,” explains Adrienne Burgess. “The top five countries in this year’s Index are all Scandinavian, with Sweden taking the top spot. This reflects fairer parental leave systems and less unequal pay. However, even in Sweden, services remain highly mother-centric.”

“Mother-focussed services can marginalise fathers and send a message that dads don’t really matter.”

Ms Burgess offers five suggestions beyond equalising parental leave and reducing the gender pay gap. First, health, education and family professionals should be trained to understand how fathers’ roles are changing, how fatherhood impacts on men, and how fathers affect the health and psycho-social well-being of their families. Second, expectant fathers should be personally invited to at least one ante-natal appointment.

Third, joint birth registration by unmarried parents should be expected, with sole-mother registrations accepted only when joint registration would be unsafe. Fourth, engagement with both parents should be considered to be core business for health, education and family services. Fifth, all government-funded initiatives to support parenting and couple relationships should require delivery agencies to demonstrate genuine capacity and willingness to engage with fathers as well as mothers.

“We know that dads matter a great deal to how children learn and thrive,” says Ms Burgess. “We have to put the policies and practices in place to make sure that we harness the huge potential that fathers have to offer.”