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Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
BY ANDREW KING
On Father's Day, and every day, fathers
have a vital role to play in their children's
According to attachment theory, a secure
relationship is essential for a child's healthy
development into adulthoodi. In the past,
studies surrounding the development of
children have focused almost exclusively on
a child's relationships with his or her mother.
Today, fathers play a unique and crucial
role in nurturing and guiding the child's
development. Many researchers now
believe that fathers can be just as nurturing
and sensitive with their babies as mothersii.
Healthy child development relies on the
roles played by both the mother and father
respectively, whether they live together
or apart. The early years of bonding and
attachment are crucial to the developing
child's brain which sets the blueprint for the
rest of their lives.
Over the last couple of decades the
emphasis has shifted from father
involvement (presence/absence) to father
sensitivity. So, rather than quantity of time
spent with a child, it is the quality of time
spent with a child that is important. As
children grow and develop, fathers take
on the added role of guiding their child's
intellectual and social development.
Traditionally, parenting approaches have
emphasised the importance of the mother's
role. However, it is now being recognisediii
that the best outcomes for children are
linked, not so much to the degree of
parental involvement, as to the quality of
the relationship. While a father may be at
work or travelling for many hours each day,
he can still provide his child with a positive
view of the world, emphasising that it is a
safe place to live.
When a father is 'just playing' with his
children, he is nurturing their development.
Mothers and fathers interact with their
children in different ways; fathers tend
to play more physically and induce more
excitement from their children than
do mothersiv. Fathers instill a sense of
confidence to explore within relationships.
Studies on attachment have shown that
there are no differences between fathers'
and mothers' potential abilities to develop
an attachment to their children. It has
been shown that fathers and mothers in a
representative population are equally able
to form a secure base for their childrenv.
In the first years of a child's life, the mother
often holds a child for the purposes of
care and nurturing, whereas a father holds
the child for the purposes of playingvi. The
father's interaction is often more active,
stimulating, exciting, teasing, challenging
and may even at times scare or arouse
anxiety in the infant. These experiences
serve an important purpose in children's
lives, not just for their immediate care but
also for their longer term development.
Traditionally attachment theory has
emphasised the significance of safety,
comfort and security in a child's
development. It is now recognised that
'risk and exploration' are equally important
factors and are often undervalued. A key
focus in understanding this today is the
experience of 'rough and tumble play'.
Rough and tumble play is not equivalent
to fighting between children. All mammals
on the planet, especially the juveniles, have
some form of rough and tumble play. In
experiments, when rats are deprived from
experiencing rough and tumble play, they
are much more anxious and likely to be
Rough and tumble play:
• May involve wrestling, grappling, kicking
• Has few rules
• Can be clearly distinguished as different
• Includes the key emotion of enjoyment,
• Involves dominance swapping (different
people take turns 'winning')
• Can involve the fathers teaching the skill of
winning/losing with effort
• Is connected with the development of
emotional self-regulation in children.
In summary, fathers' play with their
children seems to promote an active,
competitive, autonomous and curious
attitude that is beneficial to the child's
cognitive and social development. It also
buffers early separation, stranger, and
social anxietyviii. While the involvement
of fathers has been associated with the
rearing of boys, it is equally important for
the girls. However, while Dads may be
seen to have a natural tendency to play
with their children, they need to be more
conscious of the important opportunity
they have and actively develop more quality
play experiences with their children. This
is a key role that health professionals have
in working with the family. An important
measure is the level of sole-time play the
fathers have with their children, where they
can develop their own confidence without
the mother being present.
To learn more, E Andrew King, info@
groupworksolutions.com.au or visit
References: T Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theor y, London: Routledge. Berk, L. (2006). 'Emotional Development', Child Development (7th ed). p 428-429 Boston: Pearson Publishing. Bogels, S. & Phares, V. (2008). Fathers' role in the
etiology, prevention and treatment of child anxiety: A review and new model. Clinical Psychology Review (28), 539-558. Fletcher, R. (2011). The Dad Factor: How the Father-Baby Bond Helps a Child for Life, Finch Publishing, Warriewood, NSW. Pruett, K. (1987). The Nur turing
Father, New York: Warner Books. Lamb, M. E. (1977). Father-infant and mother-infant interaction in the first year of life. Child Development, 48, 167-181. Fletcher, R. (2011) op cit. Bogels, S. & Phares, V. op cit p 542.
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