The Impact of a Father on a Child’s Socio-Emotional Development (By David Millar, 2006)

UK; By David Millar; Essex University; 2006

The Paternal influence upon children has only recently become a more popular area of research within the academic community. With the advent of various political lobby groups being pro paternity, social scientists have begun to study the paternal influence upon child development. The information that we have to draw upon is very conflicting. Auerbach and Silverstein argue that neither a mother or a father is necessary (Auerbach & Sliverstein, 1999), whereas Farrell states that a father is essential for holistic well being of a child’s development (Farrell, W., 2001).

Over the last couple of decades the emphasis has been taken off of father involvement (presence/absence) to father sensitivity. So rather than quantity of time spent with a child, quality of time spent with a child is the important factor (Journal of family Psychology, 2000). Just because a father is present does not mean that is a good thing for a child. In some cases, for instance when a father is maladjusted or abusive, a child’s development can be better without him (Lynn D B., 1974).

One of the factors that makes fatherhood and its implications very hard to research, is the contextual framing around fatherhood. There is a much wider contextual frame around fathers than mothers (Journal of family Psychology, 2000). There are many different types of fathers, making it difficult to come up with any significant findings, however dealing with confounds can become easier in this situation.

The vast majority of mothers are residential, making for good statistical findings, but harder to compensate for confounds. The development of a child’s socio-emotional attributes has to be multi-factorial and multidimensional, which makes looking at one specific factor of influence very difficult. I will take a look at several theories of how the father impacts upon his children, and any implications these theories would have upon the socio-emotional domain of how his child develops. Furthermore I will then relate some studies to these theories.

Freud had a theory called the “Oedipus conflict” which is where a child desires sexually the parent of the opposite sex, but is denied its desire by the other parent. Freud was convinced that a father was responsible for the development of principles, rules and values of society within a child, if the father was missing; the childs view of his position in society was askew. (Lynn, D.B., 1974) He thought the father represents the authority of society instilled in a child. Which runs parallel with the concept of the superego, and its development.

Freud believed that men were more advanced than women, therefore the development of “higher” brain functions were more associated with paternal influence. This view has been challenged and virtually discounted. His theories were also based upon the ideas of unconscious drives, meaning that a child was motivated to fulfill its drives.

Role of the Father according to Talcott Parson’s theory centers on the structure of the family echoing the structure of society. Parsons postulates that any group must become one of two functions; Expressive or Instrumental. One way of differentiating between these two roles was between the sexes. With the male taking on most of the Instrumental role (but not entirely) and with the female taking on most of the Expressive role (but not entirely) fathers were to take on the instrumental role because they are traditionally less tied to child care, work more often outside the home, are more involved with community affairs, in politics and just dealt with more people in general.

According to Parsons the father not only brings the society into the family but brings the family into society. He is supposed to bring discipline into a family so that child will accept responsibility and eventually separate from its mother, becoming a part of society and then starting the sequence all over again when the child then becomes a parent. There is the idea that a mother’s love is unconditional, (ever heard the expression “a face only a mother could love”?) but a father’s love is conditional upon what the child can do.

Once again the idea is that the father primarily is concerned with the incorporation of the child into society. A mother’s love is to be cherished under this system but it belongs to the child and the child can not lose it, but a father’s love is to be earned and a father is the families representive of society. Therefore if the father loves the child then society will as well.

In interviews, fathers were found to be more concerned for the emotional security and learning of their child, whereas the mothers talked more about their child being free from anxiety. Fathers also tended to stress the teaching of certain values or specific child rearing goals more often than mothers. (Lynn D.B., 1974). When children were interviewed with regards to perception about fathers in the same study, fathers were characterized as being strong, powerful, potent, dominant, authoritive, and competent.

Attachment theory was coined by John Bowlby; it has a close partnership with evolutionary psychology and Psychoanalytic ideals. It is argued that attachment is an evolutionary construct in order to ensure the survival of the species, and that it is a two way system of ensuring the continuation of the species.

Psychologists use this theory to explain the way the child – caregiver relationship progresses the way it does, and has the long lasting impacts that it does. Secure attachment patterns in children are very good predictors of child behavior, and behavior throughout the life span in certain domains.

Bowlby specifically used the term “caregiver”, as the signals from the child, are supposed to elicit the same reactions in any adult. Although he did say that this caregiver was normally the mother. More recently though, different patterns within attachment have been discovered within the attachments to mothers and fathers.

Mothers and Fathers interact with their children in different ways, fathers tend to play more physically and induce more excitement from their children than do mothers as cited in (Berk, L., 2006). Fathers reacting appropriately to a child’s expression of emotion predicts positive emotional and social models of behavior in later childhood and adolescence. It is theorised that fathers instill a sense of confidence to explore within relationships (Berk, L., 2006). This idea also works in well with Parson’s theory.

Maccoby documented that the differences between the sexes were mostly within a social context and not really with individual differences, as how most gender comparisons have been performed (Maccoby E. 2000). Bearing this in mind, the father-child dyad can be assumed to be different to the mother-child dyad, due to the mere fact that each parent is a different gender and it is the social interaction with the dyads that we are concerned with. This fits in with Freud’s and Parson’s theories, in that the mother and the father have distinct roles in child development.

Franz et al found that the most significant predictor of empathy within children was paternal involvement in child care. (Franz C., et al 1990, as cited in Farrell W., 2001) Farrell theorises that fathers set clearer boundaries than do mothers, and this in turn teaches the child to respect other’s boundaries. As per Parson’s theory, where children see their father as authoritive and powerful, setting clear boundaries would be more associated with the father.

Clark-Stewart and Hayward’s study found that in the context of single parenting, children were better off in the custody of their father (Clark-Stewart & Hayward 1996). Their study covered a variety of psychological well-being assessments including self-esteem, anxiety, depression and problem behaviors. This study also accounted for parental income, the psychological adjust of both parents and time spent with the non-custodial parent.

Rebecca Ang’s study of aggressive boys in Asian schools found that the highest correlation with aggression in boys is a bad relationship with the father (Ang, R., 2006). These studies highlight the importance of father child relationships for socio-emotional development.

However, there have also been studies that have shown that same sex parenting has no negative affect or effect upon child development (Auerbach. C & Sliverstein L., 1999). This particular study argues that neither mothers nor fathers are essential for child development. They state further more that “Neither the sex of the adults nor the biological relationship to the child has emerged as a significant variable in predicting positive development”. Auerbach & Sliverstein go on to say that they think it is preferable that both biological parents take a responsible role in their child’s life, however they argue that it is not essential.

In conclusion, the study of parenting in general is very value laden, there have been books written to discount other books. This makes finding any hard, unbiased evidence difficult. The different theories also come from completely different perspectives, Freud’s theory states that a child is actively seeking to have its goals met, whereas Parson’s theory subscribes neatly into social learning theory, the child being like a sponge, and soaking up what is around it.

Attachment theory comes from a biological/evolutionary perspective, relying upon survivalist ideas and motives to explain child behavior. Most of the recent studies however, do show that paternal influences do have an effect upon child socio-emotional development.


  1. Ang, Rebecca P. (2006). Fathers Do Matter: Evidence From an Asian School-Based Aggressive Sample. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY THERAPHY. Vol. 34, (1) Abstract obtained from APA/psycINFO Item: 2005-16465-006
  2. Auerbach, Carl F. & Silverstein, Louise B. (1999) Deconstructing the Essential Father, American Psychologist Vol. 54. No. 6, pg.397-407
  3. Berk, Laura E. (2006) chap.10 Emotional Development Child Development (7th ed.). p 428-429 Boston: Pearson Publishing
  4. Clarke-Stewart, K. A., Hayward, C. (1996) Advantages of Father Custody and Contact for the Psychological Well-Being of School-Age Children JOURNAL OF APPLIED DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY Vol. 17, p. 239-270
  5. Farrell, W. (2001) “Why Dad is Crucial” Father and Child Reunion Syndey: finch publishing
  6. Franz C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1990) “The Family Origins of Empathic Concern: A Twenty-Six Year Longitudinal study.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58: 709-717.
  7. Lynn, D B. (1974). The Father. Chapter 7. Wadsworth Publishing Company, California.
  8. Maccoby Eleanor E. (2000). Perspectives on gender development INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF BEHAVIORAL DEVELOPMENT. Vol. 24 (4), p 398–406
  9. NICHD (2000) Factors Associated With Fathers’ Care giving Activities and Sensitivity With Young Children JOURNAL OF FAMILY PSYCHOLOGY Vol. 14, No. 2, p.200-219