Man Up and Change Those Diapers
Dad’s involvement with young kids influences their academic achievement.
Fathers who change diapers and play with the kids set the tone for future involvement in their children’s academic careers, says a study from the University of Illinois which examined parental involvement and its connection to student achievement. Dads who get involved early are writing a “script” which determines how connected they are to their children, and that connection will continue past early childhood, researchers say.
"If we want fathers to be involved in school, we need to focus on men building close, loving relationships with their children in the preschool years. When fathers do this, they're writing a script that says they're involved in their child's life, and their expectation is that they'll go on being involved in that child's life," said Brent McBride, professor of human development at UI, in a public statement.
“The findings are certainly consistent with previous studies, which have found that kids who have fathers who are involved—particularly early in their life—are both smarter and do better in school,” Will Courtenay, PhD, LCSW tells demo dirt. Courtenay was not involved in this study.
Establishing a strong link with one’s child, even in preschool, McBride maintains, creates a sense of trust in the child that can last throughout his or her academic career. Affectionate gestures are one way to establish and continue that involvement, no matter how simple they are. "That can be as simple as a father winking at his three-year-old child," he added.
"If you, as a dad, develop an affectionate way of interacting with your preschooler, later when your child comes home and tells you what he's done in school that day, the warm, close relationship you've built will allow him to approach you with trust, and it will allow you to respond to your child's enthusiasm or frustration in a positive way," McBride said publicly.
Because early childhood is such a critical time to establish trust and warmth, fathers who seek to establish a close bond when the child is older have a more difficult time because, McBride warns, “the moment has passed.”
The study, which examined the dynamics of 390 children and their families from the Child Development Supplement data set of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, is unique in that it assesses the behaviors of both mothers and fathers. Research explored five early parenting behaviors demonstrated while the children were between two and five years old: parent-child household-centered activities, parent-child child-centered activities (such as reading to kids), parental limit setting, responsibility (for example, making doctor's appointments), and demonstrating affection. These behaviors were measured for both parents.
"No one person in a family system does anything without being influenced by every other person in that system,” McBride said. “Having both parents in these analyses is a big advantage and a step above the previous research."
In addition to better academic achievement, children with involved fathers demonstrate better social skills as well. “Previous research has consistently shown that kids whose fathers are involved in their lives have more friends and better relationships,” Courtenay explains. “These kids also are happier, have fewer emotional problems, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors or get into trouble.”
Children’s literacy expert Cathy P. Miller, president of TLA Inc., says her own experience as an educator and consultant has demonstrated the link between social skills and parental involvement. Miller also especially tries to involve dads, she tells demo dirt, as mothers are often the focus more than fathers.
“Children whose families are interested in their learning, set high expectations for their children's academic success and interact regularly with their children produce offspring that are able to interact and relate to various types of people and handle various types of situations more positively,” Miller contends. “When it comes to reading with your children, it's really just as much about building a relationship with them as you talk about the story as it is ‘practicing’ the reading skills.”
How has the economy affected fathers’ relationships with their kids? “More fathers are spending time at home—since more than four out of five people who've become unemployed are men,” Courtenay explains.
It is still too early to judge the long-term effects of such situations, he adds, but a few possibilities are expected. “We have no way of knowing what the consequences of that are on kids' school achievement right now,” Courtenay notes. “However, it could be mixed: on the one hand, father involvement has a positive impact on kids, academically; however, we also know that men don't manage stress as well as women do and have greater difficulty adjusting to losing a job. It's unlikely that an unhappy or stressed father is going to have the same, positive effect on his kids.”
The economy has changed dynamics at school, says Julie Averill, a former preschool teacher and owner of Kids at Work .
“I have noticed in the last year lots more dads at my classes and dropping off students within the preschool where I used to work here in Manhattan,” Averill, who just left her full-time preschool job to focus on Kids at Work, says.
“I noticed lots of behavioral issues with these very young children [ages two and three] as a result of the change in daily routine—[for example,] overstimulation, regression with separation and potty-training issues, and overall grumpiness,” Averill explains.
She blames stress at home for the behavior issues. “I believe it was as a result of tension at home over lay-offs,” she says. “Parents are rarely truthful with child as far as why daddy is home.”
The stress, she says, combined with the possible loss of nanny or another basic change in the routine, creates disruption. “Issues were especially drastic with children who already had some communication or sensory delays.” Averill notes.
Miller agrees that stress at home can adversely affect school performance. “Many families are pre-occupied with these challenges, working more hours, worrying,” she explains. “It can create ‘no-reading zones’ even in a home where reading has been usual. For those who are stressed and stretched to limits, they do not have the mindset or maybe even the knowledge base to understand the importance of reading and talking in extended and rich conversation with their children.”
Study results also indicated that men and women are treated differently by the school system, perpetuating sex-role stereotypes that affect children’s relationships with their parents. “For example, if you're a day-care provider and a child is experiencing stress because of toileting issues, you would probably automatically reach out to the mother about these problems. Why shouldn't the father get that call?” McBride contends. "We need to train teachers so they're comfortable communicating with men as parents."
Courtenay agrees with McBride about the need to encourage teachers and day-care providers to reach to men, he says. “However, there's strong evidence that mothers are the number one factor influencing father involvement,” Courtenay maintains. “So, helping moms to recognize the unique and significant contribution dads make to their kids' well-being is essential.”
Another way for dads to become more involved is for schools to target them specifically, and for fathers to reach out to other fathers, says fatherhood expert, author, and dad Armin Brott, author of Fathering Your School-Age Child.
“One of the most important things schools in particular can do is to specific outreach to fathers, asking them directly to volunteer, coach, [and so on],” Brott says. “When activities are pitched as ‘for parents’ or are gender-neutral, dads tend to hear that as code for ‘moms only’ and they don't respond. That's why it's also important that the outreach, whenever possible, be done by men. Guys generally don't want to be the only men involved. Sounds like a chicken and egg kind of thing but it can be done.”
Miller also advises that dads not try to emulate what the children’s mothers do. “Children benefit from dads approaching things from a male or at least a different perspective,” she says.
She also encourages father to recognize the “internal teacher”—“the one that shows how to fix something or loves cars” to interact with their child.”
However, Miller adds, traditionally male activities need not be the extent of dads’ involvement. “It certainly isn't limited to the sexist stereotypes which have moved us away from dads doing things like reading, playing, teaching their children,” she explains.
“My dad's influence was strong but he didn't often read with us. He was a model of reading by reading the paper with us and talking about what was being reported," she concludes. "Dads, like moms, don't have to always—and sometimes cannot be—present at all school functions. That doesn't mean they can't be involved.”
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