The Dad Factor

Author: Richard Fletcher

 
Reviewed by     Karen Fontaine
 
How far we’ve come. As recently as only four decades ago, expectant fathers were relegated to maternity-ward waiting rooms while their wives laboured solo. Once the midwife had presented them with a freshly scrubbed bundle clad in pink or blue, they’d kiss the baby on the forehead before making a beeline for the closest pub, cigars in hand, to “wet the baby’s head” with their mates. 
 
Fast-forward to 2014 and it’s odds-on that new fathers are deeply involved in every part of the pregnancy, birth and post-natal periods. In maternity wards the length and breadth of Australia, proud post-partum papas cradling newborns against their naked torsos are as commonplace a sight as box-fresh Bugaboos. 
 
Apart from exposing their babies to their natural scent, what these Kangaroo-caring Dads are doing is taking the first step in a lifetime-long journey in which they expect to be an active co-parent, not simply a passive bystander.
 
Based in Newcastle, NSW, Dr Richard Fletcher is a pioneer researcher in the area of men’s health and family issues. He has travelled Australia for 20 years giving talks to groups of parents, workers and professionals on the themes of raising boys and the importance of a father’s role in raising healthy children.
 
At the start of The Dad Factor, Dr Fletcher reveals that a key moment in the antenatal classes he runs for soon-to-be fathers comes in the discussion of a father’s role after the birth. Most fathers say their own fathers did very little as new dads, but that “things are different now”.
 
It sets the tone for an excellent book that will alter your perception of the critical importance father-baby bonding plays in a child’s physical, emotional and cognitive development.
 

WHAT (it’s all about)

 
Exploring the building of connections between fathers and their young children, Dr Fletcher links the discoveries of how babies’ brains develop with the evidence that fathers have as much influence as mothers on the way that children turn out.
 
In a succinct and eye-opening presentation of the latest discoveries in neuroscience, The Dad Factor explains how when a strong paternal bond is formed, it affects the architecture of a baby’s brain – rendering the importance of bonding much more than merely emotional.
 
In short, father-baby bonding sets a child up for life. As Dr Fletcher writes: “The best type of attachment relationship for children is clear: those with a high-quality bond can manage stressful situations more effectively (and) can express their fears and gain the comfort they need from their parent; thereby managing their emotions, and then resume exploring the world.”
 
Touching on a broad range of the topics, from post-natal depression and SIDS to post-partum sex and childhood obesity (to name a few), The Dad Factor is interesting and illuminating reading for all parents; whether mothers or fathers.
 
But the wake-up call for me came with Dr Fletcher’s dissection of the negative messages about men and fathers that pervade our media. He pointed to an extensive 2003 audit of news media in which 1568 newspaper and magazine articles and 231 TV reports were analysed. 
 
In them, more than 75 per cent of all content portrayed men in just four ways: as villains, aggressors, perverts and philanderers. ‘Good fathers’ figured in just 5 per cent of stories, and men as ‘protectors’ accounted for 3 per cent.
 
As sobering as such statistics are, Dr Fletcher says it’s “exciting to be learning together just how important, fascinating and rewarding fathering can be”.  
 
As he points out, “all fathers today are exploring new territory; however admirable our own fathers were in raising us, they did not carry out their fathering in the same world we now face”.
 
And so Dr Fletcher’s rallying call to arms is this: “We have the task of forging a new fatherhood model, something we will accomplish with the help of our partners and children and along with other fathers.”
 

WHY (you should read it)

 
Steve Biddulph, the bestselling author of Raising Boys and Raising Girls, has hailed The Dad Factor as an “incredibly important” book that is “groundbreaking in what it offers to young dads – it will lead to closer and happier families for years to come”.
 
And indeed, although there are similarities in the way men and women connect with their offspring, it’s the differences that make all the difference. 
 
Fathers tend to be more challenging, less verbal and encourage more risk-taking, and it’s these very traits that, in tandem with a mother’s tendency towards a more nurturing style, can give children an edge. 
 
The importance of fathers playing with their children cannot and should not be underestimated, writes Dr Fletcher, pointing in particular to the ’rough and tumble’ type activities at which males tend to be gravitate more than women.
 
“We now see that play is not separate from learning but is actually one of the key ways that children come to master the most complex and important lessons of life – how to understand what people are thinking and how to get on with others,” he writes.
 
“Fathers’ play with children not only cements the loving connection between father and child, it also boosts the child’s development in thinking, managing emotions and problem-solving.”
 

WELL…

 
Some mothers, single ones especially, might read The Dad Factor and feel that it somehow minimises their own contribution to a child’s wellbeing. 
 
Certainly, the importance of fathers for children, and how fathers parent differently to mothers, is one of the main messages of this book. 
 
But, as Dr Fletcher puts it, “it does not mean that mothers are not important, or that the terrific parenting that solo mothers are capable of should be overlooked”.
 
 

Here's an excerpt of a particularly profound part of the book

“Until recently, it was accepted by many parents that when fathers did something in a way that was different to mothers, it was not simply different, but inferior. Now, due to the increased interest in fathers, we have more evidence to draw on. So let’s look at what researchers have discovered about the effects of fathers on children’s development. Here are three examples, taken from what is now a very large number of studies examining the effects of fathering and mothering.
 
Setting your child up for school 
 
Your child’s first day at school will be a big day for him, and for you. We all want our children to do well at school, and whether they come top of their class is not as important as whether they get on with the other student and the teachers. A father’s influence on children’s social skills can be an important factor in school success. In the first study, the way that fathers and mothers play with their young child is measured; then, later, how well the child adapts to school is measured. What would we expect to find? Since mothers are the ones who spend most time with their children, especially in the early years, we would expect to see that how they play with their children has the most effect. The question, then, is: does the father add anything to the effect of the mother?
 
Fathers influence social skills
 
In the US, researchers videotaped fathers and mothers completing a task with their preschoolers or first-graders. Teachers were asked to rate the children on their behaviour and social skills in the first years of school. The father-child and mother-child pairs were asked to complete a number of tasks, such as playing with a set of toy animals and drawing a sailboat together using an Etch A Sketch (a simple device that ‘draws’ a picture with a pointer – the father controlled one knob and the child controlled the other, so they had to coordinate their controls to draw the sailboat). The videotapes showing the way they played together were reviewed: each mother and father was given a score depending on how well they picked up the child’s cues (sensitivity) and how much exploration they encouraged in the child. The strongest predictor of the children’s social skills (and of fewer behavioural problems) was whether the fathers were sensitive and supportive of children’s exploration. Mother’s interactions were less important.
Fathers influence thinking skills
 
The Etch A Sketch study involved families with two resident parents with above average incomes, so the findings may not apply to all parents in the US. Also, these measurements of parental sensitivity and child behaviour were taken relatively close together in time, so the link between the parent’s behaviour during play and the child’s behaviour at school was not certain. A large study, also from the US, compared the influence of fathers and mothers from a low-income sample on their children’s thinking ability – their ability to explain events or solve simple maths problems. This study videotaped the parents playing with toys with their two-year-old children. The videotapes were assessed for the way that parents could take the child’s perspective, how much positive affection the parent displayed during the game, and how much the parent tried to expand the child’s abilities through the play. Negative qualities, such as how bored or grumpy the parent was, were also scored from the videotape. Three years later, the child’s maths and language levels were assessed by testers who did not know anything about the way the parents played with their children. The study concluded (not surprisingly) that the children with two supportive parents scored highest on measures of maths and language, while those with unsupportive parents scored lowest. What was also clear, however, was that the positive effect of having one supportive parent did not depend on whether that parent was a mother or a father. Higher-scoring children were just as likely to come from families where the father was supportive as from families where the mother was supportive. The impact of father-child play was just as strong as mother-child play.”                        


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