By Clara Alemann
Today is the day of love, so let´s talk about one of the most important forms of love for a child, a father´s love.
In the last 30 years, enormous progress has been made in research on the importance of fathers’ involvement in childrearing, and there’s a critical mass of literature that establishes important trends with respect to how men relate to fatherhood and the impact that their involvement has on children’s development (see The Effects of Father Involvement: A Summary of the Research Evidence).
The evidence is unmistakable: responsible and committed fatherhood contributes to healthier child development, more stable and harmonious relationships between couples, and ensures healthier mothers, fathers and families. But what are the benefits for children?
The active and positive presence of a father (or caregiver) in the lives of his children results in greater cognitive and emotional development, greater capacity for self-regulation, more tolerance for frustration and stress, and better problem solving. The father’s involvement is also reflected in the children’s improved academic performance and school attendance, less aggression, and greater ability to develop healthy relationships with their peers. Positive involvement on the part of the father acts as a protective factor for boys and girls throughout their lives, reducing their willingness to engage in risky behaviors such as drug use, crime, and violence against their partner and others. It has been observed that the children of involved fathers are twice as likely to go to college and find stable jobs, 75% less likely to become teen parents, 80% less likely to end up in jail, and 50% less likely to suffer acute depression.
In terms of adopting healthy habits (good nutrition, breastfeeding, avoidance of tobacco and alcohol abuse) as a family, fathers have tremendous influence, whether by promoting or hindering decisions in this regard.
However, men have been invisible when it comes to maternal and newborn health services, child care and child development. Social policies have promoted the exclusive role of the mother as caregiver. When the nurse/educator/home visitor speaks solely to the mother, those men who are interested in getting involved feel like they’re wasting their time or that they’re unwelcome (especially if they’re poor, young or lacking in education). Sometimes when the father is present, the professional doesn’t even look at or include him in the conversation about his children. Men’s employment situation doesn’t facilitate their participation at doctor’s appointments, early stimulation visits or school activities. The prejudices that associate child care tasks with the domain of women and the social penalty for doing “women’s work” don’t help either.
That is why maternal health and early childhood development services must play a key role in raising awareness and promoting the participation of fathers in the care, upbringing and emotional lives of their children. How can this be accomplished?
- Prepare (both) parents for mother/fatherhood, which is a task as important as caring for the health of the mother and baby. Tension between the parents increases significantly in the first two years following the birth of a baby. The more encouragement that fathers receive to get involved in the work of caring for their children and the more they do in that first year, the more likely they are to stay involved in the lives of their children.
- Promote the involvement of the father in prenatal care, childbirth and well-baby check-ups, prepare him to participate in the birth, and teach and encourage him to change, bathe and care for his child. For the mother, especially a teen mother, the father’s involvement is vital to her emotional balance and the bond with her baby.
- Train health care, education and early childhood development staff on how to constructively involve men. The Guide to Active Fatherhood [in Spanish] for professionals from Chile Crece Contigo is a valuable resource.
- Develop materials specifically for fathers about healthy habits, child development, stimulation, and the services available to mothers and fathers after birth. A good example is the Child Care Guide for a New Kind of Fatherhood [in Spanish].
- Implement programs to develop parenting skills that promote models of affectionate fathering and discipline without violence. I recommend the Awareness Manual for Fathers, Mothers and Caregivers of Children: Bringing an End to Humiliating Physical Punishment [in Spanish].
- Promote the right of the father to care for his children and be present following a separation.
- Encourage the participation of men in caring occupations such as educators, home visitors, nurses, companions for the elderly, etc.
The global fatherhood campaign, MenCare, with a chapter and initiatives in our region , is a fantastic resource for health, education and child development professionals. The site offers literature, approaches and evidence-based tools on how to create more inclusive environments for fathers and male caregivers. The results are so encouraging. It’s worth promoting these strategies among governments in our region!
Clara Alemann is a consultant in the Division for Gender and Diversity. She works on the analysis of the determinants of poverty and the integration of gender and diversity in the design and implementation of social protection studies and operations, focusing on the areas of sexual and reproductive health, conditional cash transfer programs, early childhood development, and youth at risk.