The Essential Role of Dads in Parenting

Erikson Institute’s Nucha Isarowong, PhD, discusses the importance of fathers in a child’s development.

As a researcher and a father himself, Nucha Isarowong, PhD, is actively interested in what we know, and what we are learning, about fathers and fatherhood.

“The baby hears mom’s voice through amniotic fluid, but also hears dad,” says Dr. Isarowong, assistant professor at Erikson Institute. “He might sound muffled and it’s a lower tone, but babies can identify dad’s voice as soon as they are born.”

Dr. Isarowong’s academic and research interests include child development and social work focused on infants and toddlers, children with special needs, and children growing up in urban communities. He notes that a father’s role in his child’s development is just as important as the mother’s.

Existing research sheds new light on the importance of fathers in children’s lives and the different impact fathers have in their children’s development, starting as early as the prenatal period.

After birth, fathers’ roles and relationships change as their children develop, Dr. Isarowong explains. In the earliest months, children are focused on feeling comfortable, safe, and secure. They have some familiarity with the people who respond to their cries for attention, but they can’t really differentiate between which parent is responding in what way. That changes around three months, when the social smile shows up and children start intentionally engaging in back-and-forth interactions with parents.

“By around six months, children develop the ability to individually attach,” says Dr. Isarowong. “Children attempt to communicate with their parents when they are trying to get their needs met, and when parents respond, children form this pattern of relationship with that parent.

“They can identify, ‘That’s mom, I can go to her for a good meal and lots of cuddling, and there’s dad who’s good for some excitement,’ among many other things.”

This is the point in children’s development when they recognize that fathers do things differently than mothers even around the same activities, like changing, bathing, and playing, he says.

“It makes sense that when dad responds it’s going to be a different pattern of interaction than when mom responds, so they start putting those pieces together.”

Children have what’s called multiple models, and each represents one of their important relationships. A child behaves and acts differently, depending on the person they are interacting with.

Although fathers are generally found to be more active with their children overall, their interactions can change depending on the gender of the child. These interactions are strongly shaped by cultural and personal beliefs systems regarding boys and girls, Dr. Isarowong says.

“Fathers knowingly or not knowingly interact with children in ways that fit with their beliefs,” he says. “The research suggests that if fathers are going to talk about feelings and getting along and relationship stuff, they are more likely to do that with girls, and they would encourage girls in terms of self-esteem and achievement. For boys, fathers don’t tend to praise as much. It’s almost like ‘go out there and do it’ as an expectation rather than an achievement.”

Even with the progress made in studying men’s roles in the lives of their children, some prejudices remain, Dr. Isarowong adds.

“There are still these automatic images that come up when we think about what families mean,” he says. “Fathers may have a role, but their role is more as the supporter, the breadwinner, the protector.

“All of these beliefs about men’s roles and women’s roles are just social constructions, and we’ve bought into it so deeply that it has separated men from the privilege and responsibility of parenting.”