More playtime with dad during the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be one of the few positives to emerge for children from the virus. It could also serve as some compensation for children’s considerable losses in school learning and access to friends.
Many children may have benefited during this time from the special contribution of playing with fathers to their social, cognitive, and emotional development.
That’s because many fathers have spent more time at home during the pandemic. They have also spent more time caring for their children. While that shift has been particularly pronounced during the pandemic, according to official data, it also reflects a longer-term trend, going back 40 years, of gradually increasing paternal involvement.
On average, fathers spend a higher proportion of their time caring for children than mothers playfully interacting with their children. That share may have shifted during the pandemic, but the amount of time overall that dads spend playing is likely to have risen.
“The pandemic reminds policymakers how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives.”
Playing with dad helps children develop
Children’s extra playtime with their fathers matters for several reasons. First, when parents spend more time with their children, they strengthen their skills in areas that are crucial to play – understanding what interests children, following their lead, and generally being more sensitive to them. In short, many fathers have become more closely attuned to their children’s play and to the pace at which they learn.
Learning to be patient and follow a child’s lead can be challenging. Some young children take a long time to learn a new skill for the first time and once they have learned it, may want to perform the new skill again and again. Unattuned adults may wish to rush them, do it for them, or move on to something else.
Second, fathers’ play makes a measurable and considerable difference to outcomes for children. Playing with dad is consistently linked to children being able to learn better and make friendships. More playtime with dads is also associated with less anxiety and fewer behavioral problems for children, who are less likely to get in trouble at school or fight with their peers.
The special quality of fathers’ play
Third, fathers’ play has some special qualities. Typically, it exposes children to a second person who is important in their lives. It also allows children to experience styles of parenting that differ from those demonstrated by their mother. As a result, children are exposed to differences and surprises in a safe environment. This can help them build capacities to manage change and difficulties in relationships.
Focusing too much on dads’ rough and tumble play with their children is unwise. We should avoid making it emblematic of fatherhood. Lots of moms engage in this type of play, too. And many dads can also spend quiet time with their children, sitting with them and cuddling them, and we should not think of this as “un-dad-like” behavior. Nevertheless, rough and tumble play has real value and is an area in which many fathers feel confident.
“One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset.”
Even very young babies benefit from fathers’ play
The skills that fathers bring in playfully exciting young children can benefit not only toddlers but also young babies. In my studies on fathers’ playful interactions with 3-month-olds, fathers’ engagement predicted fewer behavioral problems at 12 months and higher cognitive scores at 2 years.
It’s important that dads understand these findings because some may lack confidence in and feel reticent about caring for their babies. They – and others – may subscribe to the mistaken view that dads’ impact on children’s lives begins later. We also need to fight the mistaken cultural belief that very young babies don’t notice much about what’s happening around them. After 20 years doing child development research, I know that babies have a great capacity to notice and learn from very early in their lives.
What should dads do?
One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset. Fathers can bring something important to their children, even and perhaps especially when they are very young. Dads might not feel confident at first, but they shouldn’t worry: They should just play and, with practice, they will get better at it. I advise fathers to try a range of activities beyond rough-and-tumble play. It’s also okay for fathers to sit quietly with a toy or a book and just snuggle up with their children. At least some of time, dads should slow down, follow their child’s lead, and play at their pace.
The pandemic has introduced stresses that can undermine play. When people are stressed, the focus of their attention narrows so they attend less well to their relationships. We have seen this shift in studies of the impact depression in fathers — there was a reduction in the surprises that fathers typically built into play with their children, who were subsequently exposed to a narrower range of play. So, as COVID-19’s effects continue, we should be mindful to protect parents’ mental health.
Overall, the pandemic highlights the important role of fathers in child development. The past year should help policymakers recognize how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives. It also reminds family service practitioners to emphasize, facilitate, and capitalize on the assets that fathers, as well as mothers, can bring to their children from the earliest ages.
Header photo: Jonnelle Yankovich. Creative Commons.