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Father Influence on Children’s Cognitive Skills and Executive Function

By Alyssa Meuwissen, Ph.D.

In both research and popular culture, moms have often been depicted as the “default” parent.  However, demographic trends show that dads are becoming more involved in the care of young children. There is great variety in the make-up of modern families and how they make parenting work. Our culture has shifted from seeing dads in a “helper” role to seeing parents as a team of partners. The family home is a crucial environment for building children’s cognitive skills, including executive function.

Here’s what we know about the influence fathers have on their children’s cognitive and executive function skills:

1. Moms and Dads Both Matter.

Both moms and dads show variety in how they parent. When key ingredients of high-quality parenting are measured (e.g., being warm and sensitive to the child or supporting a child’s learning), we find no difference in the quality of parenting provided by mothers versus fathers. High quality parenting is related to positive child cognitive outcomes when coming from either parent.

Helpful Tip: Having high quality parenting from all caregivers in a child’s life is even better than having high quality parenting from one! It is important for dads to know that their interactions matter, and to include fathers when thinking about how to promote a high-quality early childhood environment for children.

2. Quality Matters More than Quantity.

One difference that is frequently found between moms and dads is that moms tend to spend more time with their children, especially in caretaking activities like feeding, bathing, etc. However, even when dads spend less time with their kids than moms, the time they do spend parenting still matters! Studies show that the quality of time dads spend with their kids has greater effects on the child’s development than the quantity of time.

Helpful Tip: Make whatever time you do have count! Even if you are not at home all day with your children, know they are still learning and growing because of how you interact with them.

3. Go Ahead and Wrestle!

Although moms tend to have a stronger caregiving role, dads, on average, have a stronger playmate role. Father play tends to be more exciting and unpredictable. Dads also tend to use more complex vocabulary when playing than moms do. Dads can enhance play in many ways, by introducing new ideas such as competition, racing against the clock, or taking new risks. When kids play with their dads, it is great practice for important skills such as regulating emotions and managing impulses.

Helpful Tip:  When you rough and tumble play with your child, watch to see what your child is comfortable with and thinks is fun. Find a balance of ideas that encourage them to stretch their limits, but don’t push them to do things they find scary or overwhelming.

4. Every Parent is Unique!

Sometimes dads do things a little differently from moms, and that’s OK! As kids grow up, they constantly have to adjust to new rules (e.g., behavior expectations for home, preschool, the library, the playground, etc.). Having two involved parents can give kids practice switching between different rules. It’s helpful if parents can agree on the basic routines of eating, sleep, and expectations for appropriate behavior, but caregivers can also be themselves and parent to their strengths. When kids interact with multiple caregivers, this gives them a chance to develop the skill of flexibility, which is an important life-long executive function skill.

Helpful Tip:  Different parents might do things differently. For example, when riding in the car with mom, kids might listen to books on tape, while in the car with dad, they might crank the music and sing. There isn’t one right way to be a parent, and kids can actually benefit from the variety.

5. Modern Families: It’s the Love that Counts.

The good news is that none of these benefits is specific to a biologically related male caregiver, and all types of families can be a great place for kids to grow! Any trusted, caring adult in a child’s life who is invested in a caregiving role can be a part of a child’s path to success.

Helpful Tip: Embrace the unique things you, your spouse, your relatives, and your friends can all provide for your child. Surround yourself and your child with a supportive network – whatever that looks like for you!


About the Author:

Alyssa Meuwissen earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation work examined the effect of autonomy support from both mothers and fathers on preschooler’s executive function skills.  In collaboration with the Center for Early Education and Development at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Meuwissen has also worked with community organizations such as the Minnesota Children’s Museum, Hennepin County Libraries, and the Minnesota Children’s Theater Company to implement and evaluate programs that support children’s early cognitive skills. Dr. Meuwissen has published her research in multiple peer-reviewed journals and presented scientific research at national conferences. She has taught developmental psychology courses to undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College. Her work with Reflection Sciences has included providing training on the Minnesota Executive Function Scale, giving professional development workshops, and creating materials to communicate with families. Dr. Meuwissen is passionate about using her education and experience to deliver evidence-based interventions to families and childcare professionals.