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April 4, 2018

Adelphi Professor’s Research Shows That When Fathers Are Engaged, Children Thrive

Mothers, says Diann Kelly, Ph.D., Adelphi associate professor of social work, protect children, keep them healthy and teach them a family’s values.

Fathers, or father figures, often teach their children how to relate to the world outside the home and give children a sense of physical safety in a manner that’s different from what mothers provide, Dr. Kelly said.

When children have fathers who are engaged in their lives, they do better as students and as friends, said Dr. Kelly, who is also chair of Adelphi’s Bachelor of Social Work program.

She explores these ideas in a paper published this year in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. Her paper, “Generative fatherhood and children’s future civic engagement,” says that children reap these same benefits if they have a biological father in their life—or any kind of father figure.

“When a child sits on father’s shoulders, he’s showing them the world from his vantage point,” Dr. Kelly said. “And from that vantage point, a child feels safe. That’s not a safe place to be, up there, but they feel safe with father. From there, they see the world together.”

Her analogy points at a deeper truth: When children feel safe from harm, they are more likely to develop better social skills and stronger bonds with others.

Dr. Kelly says the original data for an earlier version of her paper came from analysis of data collected by daycare facilities, which indicated stronger social skills among children who had an active father in their lives. Later, she used the data to develop a theoretical paper presenting a conceptual framework for viewing the father’s role as the main socializer of children and a child’s guide to encountering the world outside the home. When a father helps his children learn to socialize, and the mother is also emotionally present, children exhibit “higher cognition, increased emotional regulation and improved social behavior,” Dr. Kelly said.

Importantly, she noted that fathers who feel like they may be failures as traditional breadwinners should appreciate the vital benefits they provide their children by being engaged with them. We still live in a patriarchal society, she said, and a father provides an important perspective on ways to navigate it.

“Even if they are poor, even if they are working poor, fathers can give their children the tools to adapt to this patriarchal world,” she said.

Dr. Kelly said she expected, and even welcomed, criticism from those who think her research is discounting the contributions of mothers—especially single mothers—to a child’s development and well-being. Mothers are, of course, vitally important to their children. But Dr. Kelly said her ideas about fathers hold true when mothers and fathers are both actively engaged in a child’s upbringing.

Her work, she said, can be used by programs that promote fatherhood to persuade parents to be more active in their children’s lives, or to encourage men to reach out to children in their families who may need a father figure.


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