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Fathers Across The Life Span

There is considerable knowledge about the transition to parenthood, which occurs during pregnancy and the birth of the child (Cowan and Cowan 2000). Most information on men's transition to parenthood is derived from middle-class white men, but prenatal involvement is also becoming more commonplace among other socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Participating in childbirth education classes is not only found to be supportive for pregnant women, but it also enhances men's knowledge of pregnancy and birth, increases their understanding of the father's role, and elevates their self-confidence and self-esteem relative to carrying out the parental role (Parke 1996). Although the short-term effects of this participation are known, the long-term effects of prenatal and perinatal involvement on marital relationships and fathering behaviors are less clear.

The next phase of fathering, infancy, is well researched. Mothers are more involved in caregiving than fathers, but in contrast to commonly held myths, fathers are competent caregivers—even with infants (Parke 1996). Fathers spend a larger proportion of their time in play, whereas mothers tend to divide their time equally between caregiving and play. The styles of play differ for mothers and fathers. Fathers' play is more physically arousing and unpredictable than mothers', who are more verbal, didactic, and use toys in their play interactions (Parke 1996). In spite of these stylistic differences, infants develop attachments to fathers as well as mothers (Lamb 1997).

Is there a universal father play style? Some cross-cultural studies support the assumption of mother-father differences in play style (e.g., England, Australia), but in other cultures (e.g., Sweden, Israel) there are few sex-of-parent differences in level or type of play. Moreover, Chinese, Thai, and Aka pygmy mothers and fathers reported that they In contrast to commonly held myths, fathers are competent caregivers. Warm, affectionate Latino fathers belie the stereotype of Latino men as cold, distant, and without influence on their children's development. SANDY FELSENTHAL/CORBIS rarely engage in physical play with their children. These findings suggest that culture may shape fathers' style of interacting with their children.

There is less knowledge about fathers and their school-age children. Mothers continue to spend more time (and more time alone) with children than fathers. However, when both parents and child are together, the interactions initiated by mothers and fathers occur with the same frequency. Studies of Australian school-age children found that a greater proportion of fathers' time is spent in a playful manner whereas mothers' time more often involves caregiving (Russell and Russell 1989). Moreover, fathers participate in instrumental activities, such as scouting and sports, more frequently with sons than with daughters. Relationships with daughters during this period are often less close, ostensibly because of the increased difficulty men have identifying with the special needs of their daughters (Biller and Klimpton 1997).

In adolescence, parents of both sexes spend less time with children than during earlier developmental periods. Moreover, adolescents continue the trend of spending less time with their fathers than with their mothers. This is qualified by the child's gender, in that adolescents report spending more time alone with their same-sex parent than with the opposite sex parent. Additionally, adolescents are likely to spend more of their free time with fathers, and more work and organized leisure time with mothers (Larson and Richards 1994). During the adolescence phase of the family cycle, the essence of the father-child relationship centers around identity issues in which adolescents struggle with the difficulties of their emergent identity (Brooks-Gunn and Chase-Landsdale 1995).

Little research has focused on the father-child relationship during the postparental transition when children leave home to begin their lives as independent adults. Fathers gradually develop collegiality and mutuality with their children, are less authoritarian and directive, and children are more receptive to their father's suggestions. Sharing and negotiating emerge as the primary characteristics of their relationship.

Relatively little research has been conducted on the last stage of fathering, grandfatherhood. A crucial element of the grandparent-grandchild relationship is that the children's parents—the "inbetween" generation—mediate it. Parents determine the frequency of interactions between grandparent and grandchild, and may even determine the quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. If parents have negative feelings toward their own fathers, the grandfather-grandchild relationship may be discouraged. The majority of grandfathers derive satisfaction from being a grandfather, and they indulge their grandchildren, because they do not feel they carry the primary responsibility for their grandchildren becoming socially acceptable adults (Smith 1995). Although the strongest bond with grandchildren is likely to be with sons of a son, as men's roles become more androgynous, involving both feminine and masculine qualities, and men's and women's roles become more egalitarian, grandfathers in the future may not make such clear gender distinctions, and granddaughters may receive more of their grandfather's attention.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodFatherhood - Historical Perspectives, Fathers Across The Life Span, Determinants Of Father-involvement, Divorced And Single Fathers