According to Diann Cameron-Kelly, Ph.D., associate professor and B.S.W. program faculty chair, early paternal engagement can have life-changing results.

Discovering How and Why Dads Contribute to Positive Childhood Development

According to Diann Cameron-Kelly, Ph.D., associate professor and B.S.W. program faculty chair, early paternal engagement can have life-changing results. She explores this subject in “Generative fatherhood and children’s future civic engagement: A conceptual model of the relationship between paternal engagement and child’s developing prosocial skills,” published in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment (2018).

The concept of generative fatherhood is a cornerstone of Dr. Kelly’s research. “Generative parenting means that you give of yourself physically, emotionally and psychologically without anything in return,” she explained. The article describes how “…generative fathering, as a protective factor, helps nurture and guide the child toward understanding the world and how it works, and helps the child forge an engaged role within society.”

Contrary to traditional ideas of fatherhood and masculinity, generative parenting does not require fathers to assume the breadwinner role. “There are some fathers who have very little to give their children. All they have are hopes and dreams,” said Dr. Kelly. “And yet they can instill experiences that inform their children’s futures. For example, a family might not be able to afford to join the Boy or Girl Scouts, but perhaps the father volunteers with the child at a soup kitchen and is still able to share the impact of engaging in the community.”

Dr. Kelly’s conceptual model asserts that a father’s caregiving and reading to a child, as well as activities with the child, are directly related to the child’s cognition, emotional regulation and social behaviors. These three pillars interconnect and are crucial to a child’s development from 2 to 5 years old. Tasks such as bathing, putting a child to sleep and feeding are not merely rote activities, but rather fundamental actions that shape the child’s future self. Play promotes emotional regulation and problem-solving skills; reading heightens the child’s understanding of morality and optimal behavior; and caregiving increases the likelihood that a child will invoke empathy to care for others.

Parental identities have also become more fluid in the 21st century, with many households comprising single parents or same-sex couples. Dr. Kelly acknowledges these shifting tides as well as society’s patriarchal roots, indicating that a biological father, adopted father, male relative or fictive kin father can fill the paternal role. “Women and men see the world differently, and we respond to children differently,” Dr. Kelly said. “Each is intrinsically unique because of the way we are beholden to children. One is not less than the other.”

Dr. Kelly sees her model as a means to explore broader societal issues, such as the connection between the lack of generative fatherhood and the increasing wave of gun violence plaguing the United States. “One of the things that struck me in the Parkland shooting was that the child didn’t have a father figure. He was a drifting boat without a rudder,” Dr. Kelly reflected. “There are so many families in hard-hit communities like Newark, Chicago and Detroit that are missing fathers. Children are growing up aimless. One reason is that they are missing the critical element to their personhood: their father.”

Further statistical analysis, drawing on Dr. Kelly’s conceptual model, can offer a quantitative perspective on the role of fathers and childhood development. “Young children learn early about the world from their fathers’ presence or absence,” the article concludes. And while future generations will grow up with a myriad of influences, Dr. Kelly hopes that fatherhood remains a prominent one.

Diann E. Cameron-Kelly, Ph.D., is an associate professor, chair of the Bachelor of Social Work program and a 2017–2018 President’s Leadership Fellow. Her research focuses on minority civic engagement, early childhood and civic readiness, and child and adolescent development.

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