Fathers' greater involvement in care during infancy has a lasting positive effect on father-child relationships

New research, published by the ESRI and produced in partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth (DCEDIY), shows that children who have a good relationship with their father are happier, feel less anxious and are more engaged in physical activity. Using data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study, the findings show that most 9-year-olds (78 per cent) report getting on very well with their father and most (84 per cent) say they would talk to them if they had a problem.

The study provides new insights into fathers’ involvement with their children from nine months to nine years of age in two-parent households. Over half of fathers reported sharing most care and play activities with the nine-month-old infant equally with their partners, though mothers were more involved in personal care (such as feeding, dressing and bathing the baby). Fathers reported greater involvement where mothers were in full-time employment and less involvement if they themselves were working long hours. Fathers being more involved in care was linked to greater bonding with the infant and this had a lasting effect on relationship quality measured when the child was aged five and nine.

As the child grew older, fathers were very involved in activities and outings with the child, especially reading to the child, playing games with them and being involved in sports or other physical activity. Fathers were more likely to engage in these activities with their sons than with their daughters. Fathers with higher levels of education tended to be more involved in activities with five- and nine-year-old children in contrast to their lower levels of involvement in infant care.

Fathers reported close relationships with their children, with low levels of father-child conflict. Levels of feeling stress or strain in their role as a parent were also relatively low. First-time fathers reported more feelings of stress as they adjusted to their new role. Experiencing financial strain also contributed to parental stress among fathers.

The findings show the importance of early involvement of fathers in caring for and playing with their children. Working longer hours emerged as a barrier to fathers’ involvement. In contrast, fathers who had availed of family-friendly working practices (such as flexible hours) when the child was five years old were still more involved in their children’s lives four years later. Fathers who adopted a more traditional view of their role, emphasising their financial responsibility as a father, tended to be less involved with their children and had less positive relationships with them.

The study findings point to the value of providing information and support that is tailored to different groups of fathers at different stages of their children’s lives. Such information could usefully emphasise the importance of fathers’ role and the quality of their relationship with the child in shaping children’s experiences and outcomes.

Emer Smyth, lead author of the report said: ‘Early involvement and bonding with the baby sets the tone for father-child relationships later in childhood. This highlights the importance of government and employer support for the kinds of working arrangements that would help foster this early involvement.’

Launching the report, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth, Dr Roderic O’Gorman, T.D., said: “This report has a number of really insightful lessons for policy makers, employers and fathers.  In particular, it shows that the time a father spends with his young infant sets the tone for a lasting close relationship, which is of great benefit to father and child. The Government is committed to improving work-life balance, particularly for parents. Next year, paid parent’s leave will be extended by a further two weeks to seven weeks, helping support and encourage fathers in taking a more prominent role in the care of their young children.”