The father-child bond is important, too
Almost everywhere in the world, fathers tend to be far less involved than mothers in their children’s daily lives, although paternal involvement has increased in recent decades, particularly in the Western world’s socioeconomically advantaged families. But compared with our cousins, the monkeys and apes, human fathers are paragons of paternal involvement. Among the majority of other primates, mothers alone raise the children; the primary function of males is to protect the group.
Human fathers throughout the world act primarily as the family’s provider and protector when children are young. Today, however, at a time when fathers are increasingly valued as caregivers, we sometimes underestimate the importance of their role as providers – despite research showing that fathers’ contributions to the family’s material well-being play a significant role in improving children’s physical health and reducing child mortality. Thus both forms of involvement – direct (caring for children) and indirect (acting as a provider) – are important.
Children bond with their fathers even when the father is less involved than the mother. The quality of this bond depends not on the amount of time spent with the child, but rather on the quality of father-child interactions. Children who are securely attached to a parent know that they can count on the parent to comfort them when they are in distress or have needs to be met (fear, hunger, etc.).
However, the time spent with a child plays a role in determining which parent will be the primary attachment figure. Since this is usually the mother, children tend to turn first to her for comfort when both parents are present. When she is absent, they will obviously prefer their father (presuming that he is the second attachment figure) to anyone else. The situation is reversed when the father is the primary attachment figure.
Encouraging the child to venture out into the world
Another type of attachment develops when parents encourage their children’s active engagement with the world, creating what is referred to as an “activation relationship.” Here parents prompt children to take the initiative in unfamiliar situations, explore, take chances, overcome obstacles, show self-confidence in the presence of strangers, and stand up for themselves.
“By stimulating risk-taking, while setting age-appropriate limits, parents enable their children to develop physical and social skills, reducing the risk of negative consequences.”
If children are to adapt successfully to their physical and social environments, they must first explore those environments, which requires a certain amount of risk-taking. Parents therefore encourage their children to take risks, while providing guidance to minimize danger. By stimulating risk-taking, while setting age-appropriate limits, parents enable their children to develop physical and social skills, reducing the risk of negative consequences.
Fathers typically serve as a child’s primary activation figure. Children are more likely to turn to their father for excitement and physical interactions, such as rough-and-tumble play. Yet just as a man may sometimes be the primary attachment figure, in a minority of cases the woman in a heterosexual couple may serve as the primary activation figure. Some researchers hypothesize that homosexual partners, too, have complementary functions for the same reason: so that they can best meet their children’s diverse needs.
The bottom line is this: Children’s attachment to one parent is no less important than their attachment to the other, but simply different and complementary.
“Children’s attachment to one parent is no less important than their attachment to the other, but simply different and complementary.”