University Study Claims Fathers’ Care Harms Boys’ Intelligence

Boys brought up by their fathers during their early years are less well prepared for school, claims a Bristol University study.

The controversial finding comes as more men are taking on childcare responsibilities and schools, politicians and newspaper pundits are united in urging fathers to get more involved in their children’s upbringing.

After looking at the early childcare experiences of over 6,000 children born in the Bristol area in the early 1990s who lived at least their early lives in a household with both parents, Elizabeth Washbrook concludes that some fathers appear not to provide the same quality of intellectual stimulation to their young sons as the children’s mothers do.

Washbrook says there is “robust” evidence that boys who spent at least 15 hours a week in their fathers’ care as toddlers perform worse on academic assessments when they start school, she reports in the latest issue of the journal Research in Public Policy.

This could not be explained by the economic or psychological characteristics of parents in these families, nor by the characteristics of the child – for instance, she excluded cases where post-natal depression mean the father stepping in to take over childcare.

Her paper finds no significant effects on children – either positive or negative – of paternal involvement in childcare in the first year of life. It is when children pass their first birthdays that parenting differences between mothers and fathers start to matter.

She speculates that when in charge, fathers may be more inclined to see their job as monitoring the child and seeing to their physical needs, and be less inclined to devise creative activities that develop the child’s
intellectual skills.

But why do girls seem immune to the ill-effects of being looked after by dad? Washbrook says fathers may interact differently with sons and daughters, or daughters may simply be less sensitive to the degree of cognitive stimulation in the home environment.

On the other hand, she notes, “moderate amounts” of paternal care of toddlers are associated with better behavioural outcomes at the start of school, and this is the case for both boys and girls.

Psychologists have argued that because mothers and fathers represent different types of interaction to children, children are likely to develop different expectations of them, which should in turn increase their awareness of different social styles and perhaps contribute to the development of social competence.

To her surprise Washbrook found no significant effects on children of paternal involvement in childcare in the first year of life – she had expected breastfeeding and the formation of mother-infant attachments to be of key importance in this very early period.

“Rather, it is when children pass their first birthdays – and presumably become more sensitive to the nature of their environments – that parenting differences between mothers and fathers start to matter,” she adds.

Washbrook concludes: “A corollary of this is that there is no evidence that children will be harmed by the introduction or extension of paternity leave that encourages paternal care of infants. In fact, if paternity leave encourages fathers to undertake moderate childcare responsibilities when their children are toddlers, this may have beneficial effects on children’s social development.”