More than what we see: the role of fathers in the wellbeing of children

This past June 17th, Father’s Day was celebrated around the country and globe. Even with a day dedicated to commemorating fathers, we often overlook the crucial role fathers play in the development of their children, beyond what is conventionally considered or is traditionally applied to mothers.

In any type of family, traditional or nontraditional, the family unit involves teamwork in a child’s upbringing regardless of who raises the child. For those families with a father present, recent research showcases that the involvement of a father in his child’s life can have a large impact on the child’s diet, discipline, and exercise, among other aspects of the child’s immediate well-being. More engaged fathers can also affect long-term development of children, such as improving self-esteem, enhancing performance in school, and leading to lower rates of depression, anxiety, or teenage pregnancy.  

This does not mean that a father’s involvement in his child’s life is required to be of the same nature as a mother’s. A father can occupy his own “unique role” in a child’s upbringing, different from the mother’s--in fact, recent studies show that the way mothers and fathers interact with a child stimulates “different parts of a child’s brain.”

For many fathers, it can be difficult to be highly involved in a child’s life, especially in a country like the United States, where most states and companies do not provide paid paternal leave. In fact, the United States is the only country in the industrialized world that has no paid family leave for mothers or fathers. This can make it especially challenging for fathers to spend quality time with their children after birth, or even cope with the stressors that afflict many families after welcoming a new child. For instance, many new fathers face similar challenges to new mothers, such as gaining weight or experiencing depressive symptoms after the birth of a child.

However, countries like Sweden are trailblazers when it comes to addressing these issues. Sweden has sought to increase the involvement of fathers in family roles and improve gender equality by legally providing 480 days off from work (to be shared by both parents) for each child in their home. The goal of such policies is to improve “social benefits” while also allowing women more freedom to “become more active members of the workforce.” Paid family leave is the norm in Sweden--many Swedes claim that it can even be looked down upon if a father does not take days off from work after the arrival of a new child. Regardless of whether such policies will eventually come to the U.S., one thing is for certain--in families with dads, fathers play a more crucial role than we realize.