Father‑Child Bond Is Strongest When Fathers Prioritize Parenting Work Over Playtime
Changing a diaper is more important than playing catch, suggests a new study of father-child bonds published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
It’s one of few studies to explore father-child attachment. While most experts agree secure attachment with a caregiver of either gender is what matters, the dearth of research into the father-child relationship, coupled with the glut of research into maternal bonding, has enabled the latter to be glorified even more, and the former to give rise to ‘Fun Dad’ — the parent who knows generally what’s going on in the child’s life, shows up for parent-teacher meetings, and otherwise is around to play.
The study examined which activities contributed most to a strong father-child bond, finding fathers who devoted more of their family time during weekdays to child care-work had stronger bonds with their children than fathers who devoted that same time to play.
That’s not to diminish the importance of play, the researchers say. Play is critical to children’s growth and development, especially in the early years. But men who maximized their work-week family time by playing with their children had slightly less secure attachment than fathers who engaged in carework activities like changing diapers, giving baths, brushing teeth, etc.
That said, fathers who choose to spend weekend time with their children, especially time devoted to “activities that are child centered, or fun for the child,” also had among the highest bonds with their children.
“It’s a complicated story, but I think this reflects differences in these contexts of family interaction time on workdays versus non-workdays,” the study’s author, Geoffrey Brown, PhD, an assistant professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia, said in a statement. “The most important thing on a workday, from the perspective of building a good relationship with your children, seems to be helping to take care of them.
“Relying too much on play during workdays, when your child/partner needs you to help out with caregiving, could be problematic. But play seems more important when there’s more time and less pressure,” he added.
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The study followed 80 father-child pairs, with the children’s average age of 3 years old. Fathers kept time diaries of their activities with children, completed a standardized measure of parental attachment, and underwent a 90-minute observation in their homes. It’s a small, localized study, with outsized impact: While maternal attachment has been studied ad nauseam, becoming in the process the foundation for a theory of lifelong development, paternal attachment has been the subject of far less scrutiny and understanding. Studies like this, and surely the more that will follow, suggest the magic of the mother-child bond might simply lie in the mundane fact that mom is typically the one doing most of the carework.