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It'll be tough to beat the Father's Day present I got in 2008. With just 15 minutes left until midnight, Calla, my second child, was born in a textbook, complication-free birth. But the most powerful moment came the next day, when our sitter brought her 3-year-old sister to meet her at the hospital. Freya stood tentatively at the threshold of our room, seeming suddenly so grown-up. She had been born in this same Brooklyn hospital, just one room over. And here we were again with a newborn who looked uncannily like her.
The time seemed to have passed so quickly. But in the three-year interim between births, I had undergone a transformative experience: I took 10 months off from work to be home with Freya. In that time we developed our own daily rituals, games and inside jokes; she had her own playlist on my iPod of mutually-agreeable songs, and I had developed a few insidious tricks to get her to eat something—anything—other than Mac 'n' Cheese.
By the time Calla was born, however, the economy and my job situation made it seem impossible to take another extended unpaid leave. That morning, looking at her hunched helplessly in her sister's lap, I worried that I was shortchanging Calla.
Why Quality Time With Dad Matters
That wasn't just parental guilt talking. There's a growing body of research that indicates the more actively a father is involved in raising his kids, the better off those kids are. They fare better on cognitive tests and in language ability, for example, than those with less involved fathers, according to researchers at the University of Florida. And fathers' interaction with their children—engaging in cognitively stimulating activities, emotional warmth, and physical care, for example—reduces an infant’s chance of cognitive delay, decreases behavioral problems in boys, and sets the foundation for better mental health in girls. "When fathers are more engaged with their children, the children enjoy on average a number of social and emotional benefits," says Vincent DiCara of the federally funded National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (NRFC).
I got more time with my second daughter than I'd anticipated after all. Shortly after she was born, I was laid off. It'd be another year before I found permanent work. The time I spent at home with Calla in the meantime was economically and emotionally far more stressful than the months with her sister, but it still felt a little bit like winning the lottery.
New Generation, New Attitude About Child Care
Of course, full-time, stay-at-home parenting is not something everyone has the chance to do, or even wants to do. (I have been fortunate to have a baby mama who out earns me by some 300 percent.) But kids can enjoy many of the same benefits with a working father as long as he's actively involved in their lives. And more men seem to be recognizing that. Married fathers spent an average of 6.5 hours a week on child care in 2000, which may not seem like much but is more than double the 2.6 hours a week fathers spent in 1965. My dad worked long hours to provide for his family and was often occupied with various tasks through large chunks of the weekend that didn't include us. Like the bulk of his generation, it probably would never have occurred to him to cook up the occasional family dinner, much less put his job on the back burner to spend more time with his kids. That's changing.
Respondents of a 2007 survey of fathers by Minnesota's Department for Families and Children's Services said they consider time spent with their kids to be more important than a handsome paycheck. Out of 600 dads interviewed, a majority said their most important role was to "show love and affection" to their kids. That was followed by safety and protection, moral guidance, taking time to play; and teaching and encouraging their kids. "Financial care" finished last. "Fathers are spending more time with their kids now, doing childcare, doing housework," says DiCara. "The data and anecdotal evidence support that."
Statistics compiled by the NRFC emphasize the fact that it's in everybody's interest to do so.
Data Links Absent Fathers and Bad Behavior in Kids
A study of 13,986 women in prison showed that more than half grew up without their father. Children living in two-parent household with a poor relationship with their father are 68 percent more likely to smoke, drink, or use drugs compared to all teens in two-parent households. Kids without a highly involved father are more at risk of substance use. Obese children are more likely to live in father-absent homes than are non-obese children. Kids who have no contact with their fathers are more likely to drop out of school.
Fortunately, research also indicates that it doesn't seem to matter whether a dad actually stays home with his kids as long as he is involved with them when he is home, which helped alleviate some of the concerns I had about transitioning from stay-at-home dad back to working dad late last year. In one study published in 2008 in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, researchers found that even children of involved dads who don't live at home fare better than kids with checked-out dads under the same roof. So these days I just work on devoting my attention to my kids during my free hours. There is a sense of obligation, yes, but there's also the simple desire to get to know them better. I want them each to intuit, deep down, that in me they'll always have sanctuary, counsel and encouragement. Not a friend, mind you. A parent.
Kids Aren't the Only Ones Who Benefit
Now that Freya is 5 and Calla is turning 2, I'm beginning to see some of the fruits of my efforts. They're both well-adjusted, surprisingly confident and have shown signs of empathy lacking even in many adults I know. And it may sound trite, but I've found that I'm taking from them as much as I like to think I'm giving them. I've developed a newfound patience—and an ability to prioritize competing crises—that has paid off in other realms of life. (This phenomenon has been noted by researchers, notably in the 2004 study "Paternal involvement in U.S. residential fathers" by Joseph Peck and Brian Masciadrelli.)
There are years of challenges to come, no doubt. But none of this is rocket science: Be patient, present and actively involved, and everyone wins. And trust me, seeing your kids benefit as a result is really the best Father's Day gift a guy can ask for.
That, and maybe another year off from work.
Do you think fathers spend enough time with their kids? Chime in below.