August 1, 2023 – Dads Infants & Toddlers
Gene C. Colman Introduction: We continue to reproduce some excerpts from Prof. Linda Nielsen’s latest book, “Myths and Lies About Dads”. It’s those myths, stereotypes and outright lies about dads that tend to form powerful blockages against legislating a rebuttable presumption of Equal Shared Parenting. And while Prof. Nielsen not only shatters those myths, she expertly amasses a wealth of solid social science data that supports the key importance of both parents in their children’s lives. Throughout, the bolding and italics are mine.
Here is today’s highlighted myth – lie: Dad’s don’t have much impact on children’s cognitive development especially when they are young. So, what does Prof. Nielsen have to say about that?
From page 38: [We are omitting the footnotes. Buy the book to get those great footnote citations.]
Turning our attention from children’s physical health and stress management to their cognitive development, how much do dads matter? How true is it that dads matter most only when their children are old enough to need help with school work, especially science or math-related work (just sticking with the gender stereotype festival here). Isn’t it true that dad doesn’t really have much impact on his very young child’s cognitive skills?
Let’s start at zero—birth. From the time babies are born, they are interacting with the world around them. Those interactions are building and strengthening neural networks in the baby’s brain. The more stimulation, the better. Fathers who are highly involved and spend plenty of time playing and interacting with their babies are ramping up their baby’s brains. These well-fathered babies are more physically and mentally active, have longer attention spans, are more willing to tackle challenging tasks, and are more persistent in sticking with an activity. These children also have bigger vocabularies and better counting skills as toddlers. 31, 60 All of this, of course, leads to more success when they start to school.
But is this true even in lower income families where fewer dads have any college education? Yes, it is. In fact, even in single mother families, when fathers spend time with their baby being actively, playfully, and regularly engaged, their children have better reading and math scores years later in elementary school. 74 In fact, in a national longitudinal study with 8,400 two-year-olds, the father’s involvement was even more beneficial for babies in single- mother families than in married parent families. These well-fathered toddlers had fewer sleep and eating problems, were better at calming themselves, and had better vocabularies and problem-solving skills. 75 Similarly, in 1,300 married families where half were living in poverty, children whose dads were reading bedtime stories to them at six months of age had better language skills at age three—regardless of whether the mother had read to them or not.76 Even though both parents only had high school educations, these dads used more advanced vocabulary and asked more “what” and “why” questions to the children than the moms did. Similarly, with another group of married parents, toddlers with the involved dads had more advanced vocabularies, regardless of how involved the mother had been with them. 77 And fifth graders whose fathers were reading and singing to them when they were two to three years old had better achievement scores than those whose dads had not read or sung to them. 78 Even when babies are only three months old when their dads are highly involved with them, they had more advanced cognitive developed as two-year-olds. This held true even when the mom had been depressed and regardless of how sensitive she had been towards the baby. 79 The key for the babies in these lower-income families is the dad’s active, attentive, sensitive involvement very early in their lives.
What is it, then, that dads do that benefits babies and toddlers? How is that any different from what moms generally do? Again, large part of the answer is play. Dad’s play is usually more stimulating, challenging, unpredictable, and demanding. He uses more advanced vocabulary —less baby talk, more grown-up talk. Dads tease children and encourage, or sometimes gently force them to go beyond their physical or mental abilities. All of this teaches the child how to deal with frustration and failure without having a meltdown—all of which boost their cognitive and social skills.
Stay tuned to upcoming ESP Thoughts of the Day for more insightful excerpts from Prof. Nielsen’s book.
Gene C. Colman comments further
How frequently do we lawyers face such huge uphill battles when it involves infants and toddlers? The presumption appears to be that dads can’t possibly attend to such youngsters’ needs. Prof. Nielsen demonstrates that not only can dads address those needs, but their active involvement in child rearing bodes very well for the child’s future success.