Researchers who study father-child attachment confirm what active, involved fathers have known in their hearts for years—that the father-child bond is no less important than the mother-child bond. Over 80 percent of studies that have examined father-child relationships have concluded that there’s a strong connection between a father’s involvement and his infant’s well-being.
I have talked extensively with dozens of leading experts and studied the research and writings of many more. In preparation for writing several books about fatherhood, I also drew from my own experiences as the father of three, as well as from the interviews I’ve done with hundreds of fathers. It’s my hope that this wisdom and experience help prepare you for being—and staying—an active, involved father.
Why Get Involved?
There are three simple reasons to be an involved father: it’s good for your kids, it’s good for you, and it’s good for your relationship with your partner.
For your baby. Numerous studies have shown that when dads are actively involved with their infants, they are more secure, confident, independent, and more interested in exploring the world around them than babies who are deprived of quality time with their fathers in the first year. They’re also more comfortable around strangers, handle stressful situations better, and perform better on motor-development and intelligence tests. Other studies have shown that toddlers whose fathers took a special interest in childcare were two to six months ahead of schedule on tests of development, problem-solving skills and social skills.
The benefits for your partner and your relationship. Division-of-labor issues are right up there with money as a top marital stressor. Not surprisingly, the more involved you are and the more you support your partner, the happier she’ll be in her relationship and the better she’ll be as a parent. When your partner is a happy person, you will be as well, which benefits your relationship.
For you. Being an involved father will affect you in many ways. You’ll learn to feel, express and manage emotions (positive, negative and everything in between) you never knew you had. You’ll be more empathetic and better able to see things from others’ perspectives.
Dads who are actively involved with their children tend to be mentally and physically healthier and are more likely to advance in their careers.
It can also change the way you think about yourself. “Fathering often helps men to clarify their values and to set priorities,” writes my colleague Ross Parke, one of the pioneers in fatherhood research. “It may enhance self-esteem if they manage its demands and responsibilities well, or alternatively, it may be unsettling and depressing by revealing their limitations and weaknesses. Fathers can learn from their children and be matured by them.”
How to Get Involved: Interacting with Baby
Although it may be tempting to just sit and stare at your baby, marveling at every little thing she does, you’ll need to do a lot more than that if you’re going to develop a relationship with her. In the early months, here are some of the best ways to get to know your infant:
Hold her (or him). Newborns love to be held and carried around. If you can, take off your shirt—skin-to-skin contact helps warm the baby, and you’ll love it too. It’s perfectly fine for you to lie down on your back and let the baby nap face down on your chest. Note: This is the only time she should sleep on her tummy.
Talk to her. Explain everything you’re doing, tell her what’s happening in the news, and so forth—it will help her get to know the rhythm of language.
Change her. It doesn’t sound like fun, but diaper changing is a highly underrated bonding experience—a great time to interact with baby one-on-one, rub her belly, tickle her knees, and kiss her tiny fingers. For at least the first month or so, she needs to be changed every two hours—so there are plenty of opportunities.
Within two or three years, it’s likely your child will learn to crawl, stand, walk, run, and form one- and two-syllable words. Psychologist Lawrence Kutner likens toddlerhood to a musical fugue in which “the themes of intellectual, physical, emotional, and social development intertwine.” Read all about how to interact with your growing baby in my book The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the Toddler Years, 12–36 Months.
How Much to Get Involved
Being an involved dad means different things to different men. Among the most common definitions are:
- Being a teacher, moral guide and role model.
- Being there physically and emotionally and being available from the beginning.
- Doing hands-on things (feeding, bathing, changing, reading, playing, running errands, showing affection, etc.).
- Being an equal partner in parenting.
- Not being stuck in the role of the “wait-till-your-dad-comes-home” disciplinarian.
- Being a good provider (financially) and protector (keeping the family safe).
Being an involved dad is wonderful and fantastic, but it also takes a lot of time and sacrifice. If you work away from home, the best way to connect with your child is to make sure you’re 100 percent present when you’re together. Mute the phone, take a break from social media, turn off the TV, let the dirty dishes pile up, and eat dinner later, if needed.
A Note for Working Dads
Fathers who work away from home benefit greatly from being involved with their kids. Too many men worry that there’s no way to balance their work and family lives, and that taking an active role at home would be committing career suicide. But the truth is that men who put child-rearing high on their list of priorities are, on average, more successful in their careers at midlife than men who focus only on their work. Fatherhood also seems to “promote men’s abilities to understand themselves as adults and to sympathetically care for other adults,” says fatherhood researcher John Snarey. Men who take an active role at home are—by the time their children are grown—better managers, community leaders and mentors. Overall, they’re more concerned about the generation coming up than about themselves.
So, take the time—make the time—to get involved with your little ones. It's the best investment you can make in his or her life, and in the well-being of your whole family.
Armin A. Brott is a nationally recognized parenting expert and the author of the best-selling New Father series and "Ask Mr. Dad," a syndicated advice column.