Father support for mother is linked to positive developmental outcomes for children

Most parenting research focuses on the role of the mother, but how important is the father’s involvement in his children’s development? A study published in Social Sciences and Medicine suggests that while greater father involvement is associated with positive child development, it can be difficult to engage fathers in rural Kenyan communities to become more involved.

Childhood is crucial for every person’s development, and parenting and home environment can be extremely important factors. Although most households have a father present, parenting research and intervention strategies have focused almost exclusively on mothers.

In low- and middle-income countries, in particular, the gap between which parents provide the most care widens. In high-income countries, the role of the father has steadily increased in recent decades, which can provide many positive outcomes for children, aiding in their development. This study aims to understand how father involvement works in low-income countries.

Study author Italo Lopez Garcia and colleagues used data from 1,070 mothers and 635 fathers in 60 villages in rural Kenya from a responsive parenting intervention implemented in 2018 and 2019. Due to high migration rates, parents were allowed to be interviewed by phone or at a different time from the mothers, who were the first point of contact.

Both fathers and mothers completed the measures asking about the father’s involvement with the child and the family. Mothers completed measures of maternal well-being, including depression and stress. Maternal behaviors were measured by self-report and observation. Child development outcomes were also evaluated. Finally, demographic data were collected.

Results showed that parental intervention did not significantly impact father-reported involvement. In addition, only about half of the parents attended a single session, and the parents who attended participated in the ‘dad-only’ group, rather than those that included their wives and children. Parents who attended sessions also had greater involvement with their children and more support for the child’s mother, but there was no association with joint decision-making.

Father’s support for mother (such as praising or helping with household chores) was associated with improvements in child development and mother’s mental health. Most of the positive effects for the children resulting from the father’s support for the mother can be explained by the positive effects it has on the mother, who tends to have a greater degree of involvement.

“Specifically, we found that greater interpersonal support from the father offered to the mother and greater participation in shared household decision-making are associated with small but significant improvements in children’s development,” the researchers said.

While this study has advanced to better understand the effects of father involvement on children in low-income areas, it also has its limitations. One of these limitations is that, due to the nature of correlational data, causation cannot be assumed and reverse causation cannot be ruled out. In addition, the sample had a limited number of parents involved, making it difficult to say whether this group was accurately represented.

“Overall, our results suggest that parents are important to the well-being of the family and the child in [low- and middle-income] Parenting settings and interventions that successfully engage parents in positive intra-household interactions can result in improvements in parenting behaviors and child development beyond what interventions that focus solely on mother-child dyads can achieve,” the researchers concluded. “Future research in [early childhood development] Programming would greatly benefit from testing these interventions in similar low-resource settings to gain a deeper understanding of the causal impact of parents on children’s lives.”

The study, “Father Engagement and Early Childhood Development in a Low-Resource Environment,” was authored by Italo Lopez Garcia, Lia CH Fernald, Frances E. Aboud, Ronald Otieno, Edith Alu, and Jill E. Luoto.

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