The role of the father
Traditionally fathers have been seen as minor attachment figures, providing resources, but little childcare. Females were seen as ’natural’ caregivers and males were considered to be biologically unsuited to such a role. Some people see fathers not as caregivers, but as a source of exciting, unpredictable, physical play. However, in Britain, in heterosexual partnerships, 10 per cent of main child caregivers are male, while 9 per cent (186,000) of single parents are also male (2013 figures). Research shows that fathers can develop sensitive responsiveness (perceiving and providing appropriate care) when assuming a main caring role. Several important factors have been identified in the relationship between fathers and children:
• Degree of sensitivity — fathers who are sensitive to their children’s needs develop more secure attachments with them.
• Type of attachment with father’s own parents — single-parent fathers tend to develop similar attachment types with their children to those that they had with their own parents.
• Marital intimacy — the amount of intimacy (emotional closeness) a father has with his partner is positively correlated with the security of attachment he develops with his children.
• Supportive co-parenting — fathers who assist their partners in providing childcare develop stronger, more secure attachments with their children.
Fig 3.3 Do children attach to fathers just as playmates, or can the father fulfil a greater role?
Lucassen et al. (2011) performed a meta-analysis of 22 studies to investigate the association between the sensitivity of childcare provided by fathers and the security of attachment with their children. The review consisted of studies that used observational measures to measure interaction between fathers and children as well as the Strange Situation procedure (see page 46). High levels of paternal sensitivity were found to be associated with higher infant—father attachment security. This suggests that, with fathers as well as with mothers, showing sensitive responsiveness to children’s needs leads to more secure attachments with them. Interestingly, fathers’ sensitive play combined with stimulation was not more strongly associated with attachment security than sensitive interactions without the stimulation of play, which implies that a father’s role as playmate is not that important in developing strong, secure attachments.
• Hrdy (1999) found that fathers were less able than mothers to detect low levels of infant distress, which supports the idea that males are less suitable attachment figures. However, Lamb (1987) found that when men become main caregivers they quickly develop sensitivity to children’s needs, which implies that sensitivity is not limited to just women.
• Bernier & Miljkovitch (2009) found that single-parent fathers develop similar attachments with their children to those that they had with their own fathers. However, this was not found in married fathers, so continuity of attachment seems to occur more where fathers are sole caregivers.
• Belsky et al. (2009) found that fathers with high levels of marital intimacy had more secure attachments with their children. This supports the idea that the emotional closeness of relationships between fathers and partners is reflected in the quality of relationships that fathers have with their children.
• Brown et al. (2010) found that high levels of supportive co-parenting (sharing childcare duties) was related to more secure attachment types between fathers and children, but not between mothers and children. This suggests that supportive co-parenting is important for fathers in developing positive relationships with their children.
Children who have secure attachments with their fathers have good peer relationships, fewer problem behaviours and are more able to control their emotions. This illustrates the positive influence fathers can have on children’s development.
Fathers are important for mothers as well as children. Fathers who help with childcare allow mothers to have some time for themselves, which helps reduce stress, increases self-esteem and enables mothers to interact positively with their children.
Children without fathers often do less well at school and show high levels of risk-taking and aggression. This suggests that fathers can help prevent negative developmental outcomes.
Much research evidence concerning father—infant attachments is correlational and does not show causality. For example, there is a relationship between fathers who interact a lot with their children and those children developing secure attachments. But, it might be that more sensitive fathers interact more with their children.
Early interaction with their children is important for fathers in developing positive relationships with them, but few employers encourage male workers to take the paternal leave they are legally entitled to.
Although research shows that men make good main caregivers, society has a long way to catch up. Few nursery and primary school teachers are male and many airlines will not even let men sit next to children.
One practical application is in parenting classes. Skills which increase male sensitivity to children’s needs can be taught in such classes so that fathers develop more secure relationships with their children. Research evidence could also be used to help break down society’s suspicions about men who care for children.