FI Research Summary: Fathers, Sensitivity and Parenting Style

7 November 2014

High quality (sensitive/supportive) and substantial father involvement from the month following birth is connected with a range of positive outcomes in babies and toddlers, including higher IQs at 12 months and 3 years.

In a sample of African American families, fathers’ authoritarian parenting style (rigid and bossy) was linked with poorer vocabulary and receptive and other skills in their children – with the quality of the fathers’ parenting more influential than mothers’.

‘School readiness’ in young children is associated with high levels of fathers’ sensitivity, in addition to mothers’ sensitivity. Helping fathers as well as mothers to respond to infant-cues and develop quality interactions with their babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, is very important.

Father-infant bonding is stronger when dads develop their own ways of doing things.


Fathers who exhibit ‘parental sensitivity’ generally function as a supportive presence, respect their children’s autonomy and exhibit low levels of hostility towards them. This is more often found in men who were older when they first became fathers, hold less traditional child rearing beliefs and report more intimacy with their children’s mothers (NICHD, 2000).

The kinds of interactions by fathers that have been shown to benefit young children’s development include supportive play, sensitive responses to children’s ‘cues’, expanding on what they say, referring to objects and events, eliciting actions, directing attention, prompting play, reading books, and using large vocabularies (Tamis-Le-Monda et al, 2012).

The ‘magnitude’ of fathers’ influences are equal to and sometimes larger than those of mothers (Tamis-LeMonda et al, 2013). For example, “school readiness” in young children is associated with high levels of paternal sensitivity, over and above mothers’ sensitivity (Campbell & von Stauffenberg, 2008).

Babies whose fathers play a big role in caring for them are generally more sociable (Frascarolo, 2004).

Sensitive and substantial involvement by dads from the month following birth are connected with a range of good outcomes in babies and toddlers (Yarrow et al, 1984; Wachs et al, 1971) including better language development and higher IQs (Yogman et al, 1995; Magill-Evans and Harrison, 1999).

In China, their father’s ‘warmth’ was found to benefit children’s educational and social adjustment (Chen et al, 2000).

Also in China, a father’s authoritarian parenting style (rigid and bossy) had a more negative impact on his children than authoritarian parenting by mothers’ (Chen et al, 1997).

Similarly, in the Philippines fathers’ authoritarian parenting style was found to be linked to their children feeling frustrated and stressed (Esteban, 2006).

Authoritarian parenting by African American fathers’ was again found to be more impactful than mothers’ and was connected to poorer vocabulary and receptive and other skills (Roopnarine et al, 2006).

To support paternal sensitivity, practitioners should:

• In resources for and interventions with parents, address myths about fathers’ capabilities with infants and children, so that both fathers and mothers understand that parenting skills and parental sensitivity are learned, not ‘innate’, and that fathers can learn as quickly as mothers (Myers, 1982)

• Within hospital and home settings, encourage fathers to go ‘skin to skin’ with their newborns (Erlandsson et al, 2007)

• Brief interventions such as Brazelton which teach parents to assess their babies’ capabilities or read infant ‘cues’ or engage in baby massage can make a real difference to both the amount of father-infant interaction, and its quality (Sholz & Samuels, 1992; Myers, 1982)

• Consider use of ‘video-play-back’, where fathers and their babies are video-ed interacting with each other, and the video-tape is then watched by the dad with a trained professional who points out successes in the interactions (Lawrence et al, 2013).

• Pay attention to ‘micro moments’ within family routines, for example encouraging fathers to hold their infants as often as possible, including when out as a family; and to engage in verbal exchanges with their babies when changing and feeding them (Tamis-LeMonda et al, 2013).

• Encourage fathers to take charge of their infants on their own: fathers who regularly spend time in ‘sole charge’ of their babies develop confidence and skills and interact with them in a much wider range of ways than other fathers (Pedersen et al, 1987). This is connected with very good outcomes for children, including higher school grades (Hoffman & Youngblade, 1999).

• Consider using ‘Hello Dad’, a superb and inexpensive DVD resource designed to help dads connect with their babies, which can be purchased online from the New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry in Australia. Among other things, this demonstrates to fathers how to engage in ‘mutual gaze’ with their infants, and explains how this assists brain development.

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Campbell, S.B. and von Stauffenberg, C., 2008. Child characteristics and family processes that predict behavioral readiness for school. In A. Booth and A. C. Crouter, (Eds).Disparities in school readiness: How do families contribute to transitions into school? (pp. 225-258). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Chen, X., Dong, Q. and Zhou, H., 1997. Authoritative and Authoritarian parenting practices and social and school performance in Chinese children. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 21(4), pp.855-873.

Chen, X., Liu, M. and Li, D., 2000. Parental warmth, control, and indulgence and their relations to adjustment in Chinese children: a longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(3), pp.401-419.

Erlandsson, K., Dsilna, A., Fagerberg, I. and Christensson, K., 2007. Skin-to-skin care with the father after cesarean birth and its effect on newborn crying and prefeeding behaviour. Birth, 34(2), pp.105-14.

Esteban, E. J. (2006). Parental verbal abuse: Culture-specific coping behavior of college students in the Philippines. Child psychiatry and Human Development, 36, pp.243-259

Frascarolo, F., 2004. Paternal involvement in child caregiving and infant sociability. Infant Mental Health Journal, 25(6), pp.509-521.

Hoffman, L.W. and Youngblade, L.M., 1999. Mothers at work: effects on children’s well-being. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lawrence, P.J., Davies, B. and Ramchandani, P.G., 2013. Using video feedback to improve early father-infant interaction: a pilot study. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 18(1), pp.61-71

Magill-Evans, J. and Harrison, M.J., 1999. Parent-child interactions and development of toddlers born preterm. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 21, pp.292-307.

Myers, B.J., 1982. Early intervention using Brazelton training with middle-class mothers and fathers of newborns. Child Development, 53(2), pp.462-471

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2000). Factors associated with fathers’ caregiving activities and sensitivity with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(2), pp.200-221

Pedersen, F.A., Suwalsky, J.T.D., Cain, R.L., Zaslow, M.J. and Rabinovich, B.A., 1987. Paternal care of infants during maternal separations: associations with father-infant interaction at one year. Psychiatry, 50, 193-205

Roopnarine, J.L., Krishnakumar, A., Metindogan, A., and Evans, M., 2006. Links between parenting styles, parent–child academic interaction, parent–school interaction, and early academic skills and social behaviors in young children of English-speaking Caribbean immigrants. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21(2), pp.238-252

Scholz, K. and Samuels, C.A., 1992. Neonatal bathing and massage Intervention with fathers, behavioural effects 12 weeks after birth of the first baby: the Sunraysia Australia Intervention Project. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 15, pp.67-81

Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Baumwell, L. B. and Cristofaro, T., 2012. Parent-child conversations during play. First Language, 32, pp.413-438

Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., Cabrera, N.J. and Baumwell, L., 2013. Fathers’ role in children’s language development. In Natasha J. Cabrera and Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Handbook of Father Involvement: multidisciplinary perspectives, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge

Wachs, T., Uzgiris, I. and Hunt, J., 1971. Cognitive development of infants of different age levels and from different environmental backgrounds. Merrill-Palmer Quarterley, 17, pp.283-317.


Yarrow, L.J., MacTurk, R.H., Vietze, P.M., McCarthy, M.E., Klein, R.P. and McQuiston, S., 1984. Developmental course of parental stimulation and its relationship to mastery motivation during infancy. Developmental Psychology, 20, pp.492-503


Yogman, M.W., Kindlon, D. and Earls, F., 1995. Father-involvement and cognitive-behavioural outcomes of preterm infants. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 34, pp.58-66


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