Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Scholar With New Insights on Dads

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Fathers often get a bad rap, especially the dads and guardians who occupy the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

But in the decades since millions of moms have entered the workforce, our notions of responsible parenting could use an update. At least that’s the argument Natasha Cabrera, a scholar of child-parent engagement at the University of Maryland, puts forward during a recent interview in Education Week. She makes the case that dads play a vital role in the development of the littlest learners.

“Fathers have an important role to play in self-regulation. For example, rough-and-tumble play. They help the kids to regulate behaviors, to understand their own strength, to stop, which are all really good things,” Cabrera said in the interview.

Lillian Mongeau, the reporter asking the questions, pushes further in wondering if fathers actually help small children develop self-regulation.

Cabrera responds: “I’m not saying the mothers don’t do roughhousing, but they don’t do it as much as dads. Some people think it’s just an evolutionary thing. That’s not in my research. But in general what I find is when kids—boys and girls—are engaging with dad in this physical play, if dad is doing it right, there is a good opportunity to have kids control impulses and regulate their behavior.”

That’s not to say the secret to well-adjusted kids is a series of tumbles, carpet burns and general controlled chaos – consistency matters, too. At the Education Writers Association’s 2015 National Seminar, Cabrera spoke about the environments her research shows are vital to a child’s positive development. Nan Austin, a reporter for The Modesto Bee who attended that session, has more:

“The quality of early homes matter a lot. Early learning experiences at home are key,” she said. Homes should be safe havens, without a lot of yelling, where kids have nutritious food, stimulating toys and books, and loving adults.

“They are characterized by routines,” Cabrera said. Simple things like a constant bedtime, eating meals at the same time every day have a big payoff.

Austin captured Cabrera describing another break with popular attitudes about what dads bring to the table – complexity of language:

“Dads are really important in language development because they are linguistically more challenging than moms,” Cabrera said, explaining fathers tend to quiz kids and demand answers, while moms tend to let grunted answers ride, infer and move on.

“Fathers encourage children to take smart risks,” Cabrera said, citing an example of a dad telling his child to try swimming across the pool to him.

Fathers matter, that’s for sure, and Cabrera’s research suggests that even in single-mother homes, fathers play many roles that aren’t captured by large data sets. The latest research on family dynamics among children suggests that a third of the time, a mom or dad is out of the picture – the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 35 percent of children in 2013 were living in a single-parent home.

Those children, government data show, more often grow up in economically struggling households.

While 11 percent of children considered poor in 2013 lived in a two-parent home, U.S. Census data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education show that those living in a mother-only household had a 45 percent poverty rate. For children living in a father-only home, the poverty rate was 29 percent.