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Half of fathers in lower-income countries don’t engage their kids, study finds

Half of fathers in lower-income countries don’t engage their kids, study finds

Picture of Ryan White
Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

One of the big themes in early childhood research over the past decade has been the emphasis placed on parents stimulating and interacting with their kids during the first few years of life.

This can play out in several ways. Early childhood researchers such as Harvard’s Jack Shonkoff have repeatedly stressed the importance of the dynamic called “serve and return.” Baby babbles or coos, and mom or dad respond with soft words and animated faces. (This now-classic video from Dr. Edward Tronick neatly shows what happens both when the dynamic works as it should and when it breaks down.) Such interactions build crucial emotional and cognitive brain circuits during a period of explosive neural growth, and they also serve to soothe and assuage stress. The lack of such loving attention from a parent is now considered a form of neglect and, over time, can lead to under-developed brains and malfunctioning stress-response systems.

Similarly, there’s a well-established body of research that shows how the number and quality of words a child hears at home during the first years of life is tied to later achievement in school and life. This maps out along class lines: Children from poorer families hear an estimated 30 million fewer words by age 3 compared with their wealthier peers, according to psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s seminal research on the topic. Efforts such as Providence Talks in Rhode Island and Habla Conmigo in San Jose, California seek to get low-income parents to tune in and talk more to their kids as a means of closing the gap.

The common thread is the notion of the engaged, responsive parent who spends quality time interacting with their little charge. While moms are often the ones doing the heavy lifting in this arena, fathers are just as capable of molding their babies’ brain for the better. Or not, as new research suggests.

Consider a new study in Pediatrics released last week that took an international view of how fathers in low- and middle-income countries are doing when it comes to engaging their kids. Researchers drew on data from 38 countries to come up with a sample of more than 87,000 kids, ages 3 and 4. Researchers crunched survey data on whether dad had done things such as read books, tell stories, take the child outside or otherwise play with the child over the past three days.

Dads of the world have some work to do, according to the analysis.

“A total of 47.8 percent of fathers did not engage in any stimulation activities, whereas 6.4 percent of fathers engaged in five or six stimulation activities,” the study reported. That’s about twice the percentage of unengaged moms, which made up nearly 25 percent in the sample.

Further, children whose dads were “completely unengaged” had modestly lower scores on something called the early childhood development index, which gauges children’s academic, physical and social-emotional development.

This is an observational study, so it can’t establish causation. But the findings comport well with existing research on how engaged parents are key to building brains and buffering stress during early childhood.

In a companion paper in the same issue of Pediatrics, Craig F. Garfield and Judi Mesman compare the contribution made by more engaged dads to other well-known correlates of healthy childhood development. They write:

“The effect sizes of high paternal stimulation were similar in magnitude to those of mother completing primary school and an increase in wealth that delivers the family out of the poorest quintile.”

With only six percent of fathers meeting that “high” standard, many young children in poorer countries are hit with a double whammy: a lack of financial capital and a lack of parenting capital, both of which are tied to later-in-life success. It makes sense that the two would be linked in poorer families, as Garfield and Mesman point out:

“With such positive associations between paternal involvement and child outcomes, why aren’t more fathers involved with their children in low- and middle-income countries? The answer may lie in paternal constraints on money and time. In many developing countries, fathers spend almost all their time on income and food provisioning and are indeed expected to do so when food and health security are low.”

The lack of money and time among overworked parents is hardly limited to developing countries. But as we learn more about the long-term health and cognitive consequences of this kind of routine neglect, the global scale of the problem seems especially staggering. Worse, it creates an economic trap in which families least able to give their children the daily attention they need are most likely to suffer ongoing hardship when these children aren’t able to reach their full potential.

Perhaps its time for a broader view of what economic development entails, one that makes room for budding brains and bedtime stories with dad.

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