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The research is in: Fathers are not replaceable

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The stable presence of dads in their children's lives greatly enhances their behavior, personality, and happiness.

Science has begun to look more closely at the father figure, especially in the English-speaking world where family breakdown is more prevalent. Two independent researchers at prestigious British universities reached similar conclusions: the nuclear family works. Moreover, the presence of the biological father cannot easily be replaced by another father figure. The stable presence of the father in the life of the children greatly enhances children’s mental and linguistic development.

Biology matters

Elena Mariani, who holds a doctorate in demography at the London School of Economics, published a study in the European Journal of Population entitled “Family Trajectories and the Well-being of Children Born to Lone Mothers in the UK,” along with co-authors Berkay Özcan and Alice Goisis. The study “confirms that the absence of the father figure has negative effects for children even if that absence is not due to separation, as in cases where the father was not there since birth.”

The study found that a stable family situation plays an important role in a child’s well-being: children who have a stepfather, for example, do not seem to benefit from the new family situation compared to children who have only lived with the mother.

The benefits become visible if the biological father rejoins the family, although the positive impact is “quite modest.” Mariani points out that children in broken and then reconstituted families remain “disadvantaged with respect to children who have lived with their biological parents since birth.”

If the returned biological father ends up later moving away from the family, the children are worse off than children who have only lived with their mother. The study says the “stress of change” probably undermines the previous positive effects of the father’s initial return.

The father’s attitude is key

A second study published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, entitled “Father-Child Interactions at 3 Months and 24 Months: Contributions to Children’s Cognitive Development at 24 Months” demonstrates the beneficial effects of the father’s presence in a young child’s life.

The researchers subjected the children to a series of cognitive tests, including one that measured their understanding of a book and their recognition of shapes and colors. The first obvious result is that the children who performed best on the tests, whether male or female, are those who have spent more time with their fathers from their very first months. “Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development,” Professor Paul Ramchandani, Head of Research, told Science Daily.

“We also found that children interacting with sensitive, calm and less anxious fathers during a book session at the age of two showed better cognitive development, including attention, problem-solving, language and social skills,” explains Dr. Vaheshta Sethna, King’s College, one of three institutions (along with Imperial College and Oxford) that conducted the research. “This suggests that reading activities and educational references may support cognitive and learning development in these children,” she added.

The father-child relationship is central

For some time, studies have revealed how much attachment to the paternal figure is a positive element that helps little ones develop. A “good dad” who is attentive to the needs of his child will make him or her a serene adult.

According to a previous government-sponsored report in the UK, “the quality and content of father’s involvement matter more for children’s outcomes than the quantity of time fathers spend with their children.”

The same study found that children benefit greatly when fathers take an interest in their education. Some of the positive outcomes include better test scores and a higher level of educational attainment overall. Children with involved, attentive fathers are also more likely to show a more positive attitude and better behavior, the report found.

This article was originally published in the Italian Edition of Aleteia.

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