Mothers and fathers have unique parenting responsibilities. Some areas of care, such as breastfeeding, can only be performed by mothers. Fathers, on the other hand, may feel an innate responsibility to foster moral values in their children. But most child-rearing activities, such as feeding, changing, and bathing, can be done by either parent. Likewise, cognitive activities such as reading, stimulating, and teaching can be accomplished by either parent. Some research has suggested that the long-term effects of a father’s engagement with his child are more vulnerable to social and relational influences than the effects of a mother’s engagement. But until recently, few studies have fully examined this dynamic. To explore this more, Jay Fagan of the School of Social Work at Temple University in Pennsylvania recently led a study that looked at how parent relational conflict affected paternal engagement and how paternal engagement predicted later parental conflict.
Fagan gathered data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey Birth Cohort and assessed the family constructs and behaviors of 3,600 participants. He evaluated how much paternal physical engagement and cognitive engagement existed during the first several years of the children’s lives and looked at how that affected later parental conflict. He found that when fathers were heavily involved in the physical care of their children at nine months of age, conflict between mothers and fathers increased as children reached 4 years old. However, when fathers were more involved in cognitive activities with their young children, the level of parental conflict decreased. Fagan believes that mothers and fathers often disagree on how children should be bathed, fed, and tended to physically. This difference in opinion could increase tensions that lead to later conflict.
Cognitive involvement, on the other hand, is an activity that parents often agree on. When fathers engage in mentally stimulating activities with their children, they are more likely to achieve expectations set by mothers, thus decreasing the chance of future relational conflict. Although this study looked at only one area of parental conflict—namely, disagreements about child rearing—other sensitive parenting topics may influence parenting harmony and should be examined. Fagan hopes that the results of this research underscore the importance of early paternal involvement and its impact on children and parents. “Our findings suggest that programs that focus on increasing fathers’ engagement in cognitively stimulating activities may also lead to less coparenting conflict between mothers and fathers,” he said.
Fagan, J., Cabrera, N. (2012). Longitudinal and reciprocal associations between coparenting conflict and father engagement. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029998
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