We talk a lot about skin-on-skin for new mothers, but we know this is equally important for the father or partner to share with the new baby. Forming that connection from day 1 can help nurture a strong bond as the child grows.
It has been proven that skin-on-skin connection (also known as kangaroo care) raises both dopamine and oxytocin levels in both the child and the mother and father. Conversely, it also decreases cortisol levels which is what is responsible for stress and anxiety.
We also know that these days, no 2 families are the same, and the role of the father can vary greatly within family structures. From heterosexual couples, same-sex couples, single parents, co-parenting parents, families with stay-at-home dads as well as step-parents and grandparents, there is no ‘normal’ anymore and families today take many diverse shapes and sizes.
But what is the overall importance of a father or father figure in the development of a child?
*For the sake of this article, we will refer to this role as ‘father’ or ‘dad’, however, we understand that this father-figure role can take several forms, all of which are equally relevant.
1. Emotional development
Thankfully, most modern dads understand the importance of their part in the bigger picture of both running a household (although definitely still some work to do here) and nurturing the development of their little ones. Gone are the days when a father played a very minor role in child-rearing. Most dads want to be actively involved in everything from changing nappies to rocking their baby to sleep, reading books at bedtime to teaching their kid to ride a bike.
But perhaps one of the most significant developmental changes we’ve seen in modern dads is their ability to teach their children about emotions; the capacity for the male figure in a child’s life to ‘feel’ and show emotions is key in helping them understand and develop their own connection with their emotions. And further to that, talking about their emotions without shame.
Having a dialogue that makes a child understand that their feelings are normal, acceptable and something they can talk about and share with shame is critical in both modelling and encouraging a healthy emotional landscape in a child. This is particularly important between fathers and sons.
2. Modelling healthy relationships
A father often sets the bar in a child’s mind of what a male figure should do and how they should act in relationships with those around them, particularly with a mother or other caregiver.
Modelling healthy relationships helps children understand and form the basis of their own relationships and interactions as they grow – helping them determine what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t.
3. The power of boundaries and forgiveness
Some fathers may struggle with boundaries, knowing where to draw the line between disciplinarian and friend. But as parent educator Genevieve Muir says, boundaries are one of the highest forms of love, and giving children “too much freedom and a lack of limits actually makes children feel the opposite of free”.
Often dads want to feel like they are friends with their children, and claim the role of ‘the fun one’. This is especially the case when they might not be there as often if they work long hours or are co-parenting.
However, the most important thing a dad can do is help a child to know that boundaries are there because they love them and are there for a reason. There will always be some discomfort with this, often for both parties, but welcome this discomfort because it is through this that stronger relationships are formed.
Allowing your child to express their discomfort and emotions without the fear of punishment, violence or withholding affection helps children to know that you’ll love them no matter what and will always be there for them.
4. Providing perspective and different opinions
Fathers provide a healthy dose of perspective for little minds by bringing different interests, opinions or ways of doing things to the family unit. Whether it’s specific knowledge, hobbies, interests or beliefs, our children are sponges and make sense of their world from what they absorb around them.
It is healthy to teach children that having a difference of opinion is ok – but that it is how we react to and accept these differing opinions that counts.
5. A whole lot of fun…
We know that mums are fun too, of course, but dads tend to bring a new element of fun and energy to little ones lives, resulting in a different type of connection: rough and tumble play, kicking a ball around outside, climbing a tree or building a go-cart together.
Making time to play with little ones can often be difficult for dads in the early years, especially when playtime might mean tea parties or teddy bear picnics (that’s not to say all dads will struggle with this, of course). Yet, because we know the importance of play – not just for a child’s development but also for nurturing bonds, taking the time for uninterrupted play with children, being guided by what they want to do, is just as important for dads.
Remember that the role of a father doesn’t come down to time spent with a child or blood relations, but rather the quality of those interactions. It’s about understanding how to be the best parent you can be to raise the next generation of emotionally resilient and confident human beings.