Friday, June 15, 2007

Dads Really Are Important

Sue Shellenbarger:
Fathers can have a distinct impact on children beyond that of mothers, and in many cases without regard to the fact that they often spend less time with their kids, researchers say. Specifically, dads' early play and the way they talk to their toddlers are emerging as special "father functions" that have a particular and lasting effect.

The findings aren't just about a parent's gender per se. Mothers and fathers stimulate children through the same psychological processes, researchers say. But mothers can only do so much; fathers have an additional impact, over and above that of mothers. Also, men have a tendency to behave differently with children. After defining good parenting for decades as what warm, nurturing mothers typically do, researchers now are also beginning to see how behaviors characteristic of fathers can shape children too.

Fathers tend to engage kids in more rough-and-tumble play, for example. Researchers say this can have a powerful positive impact on children, fostering curiosity and teaching them to regulate emotion and enjoy surprises....A 2004 study...found a link between fathers' warm, stimulating play with their 2-year-olds and better language and cognitive skills in the children a year later, independent of mothers' behavior. The effect endures into adolescence. Dads who play with toddlers in stimulating and encouraging ways tend to have children with healthier relationships at age 16, surpassing mothers' effect, says a 2002 study in the journal Social Development.

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Fathers also tend to shape language development. Fathers typically don't "talk down to their children as much as mothers," using larger words, says Kyle Pruett, an author and clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University.

A study last year at the University of North Carolina found a link between fathers who used varied vocabulary with their 2-year-olds, and more advanced speech at age 3, even though the fathers spoke less often to the children. Mothers' vocabulary didn't have a significant impact, perhaps because there weren't enough differences in the high verbal skills of mothers in this middle-class sample, researchers found. It was talkative dads who gave the kids an edge.

Dads also tend to handle misbehavior differently, stressing real-world consequences. Where moms might say, "If you misbehave you're in trouble with me," dads more typically say, "Knock it off...nobody will like you, you'll never get a job" if you behave that way, Dr. Pruett says. Such fathering may reduce teen delinquency. In a 2006 study led by Jacinta Bronte-Tinkew of Child Trends in Washington, D.C., close, supportive fathering was linked to less teen risk-taking and delinquency.

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