Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2007

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The Down to Earth Dad

Dad as Teacher

By Patrick Mitchell

Educators, practitioners, and parents nod in agreement when I tell them I believe moms matter supremely in children's lives and that without them we'd be sunk. But when I roll up my sleeves and deliver more truths--revelations borne of 25-plus years of fatherhood research suggesting that dads matter too, I get a collective "Tell me more, I want to believe you, but I'm skeptical" gaze from my audience.

Of course, the magnitude of the skeptical gaze varies depending on the number of dads in the room versus the number of non-dads--a.k.a. moms and professionals who are women and who may be hearing a frank father involvement message for the first time. The look is pretty much the same for the dads, except they're leaning forward just a bit more in their chairs because they're ready to believe the impact of fathers is a big deal. And, of course, it is.

So I deliver the father involvement goods that are the starkest, most plain, and current in order to work the crowd a bit as we move together toward a productive discussion of father involvement in kids' lives. One such gem of stark, plain truth that I'm eager to share springs from research implying that fathers have an enormous effect on early literacy development--even more so than moms in certain nuanced aspects of early literacy--in terms of the vocabulary of 2- and 3-year-olds.

I'm referring to the remarkable just-published results of a study by the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and UNC's School of Education in the College of Arts and Sciences, suggesting that children whose fathers talk to them frequently have a net gain in early language skills greater than the gain when moms share their vocabulary. More specifically, fathers appear to influence early language development more than mothers. That'll get some conversation going for sure.

Moms matter immensely, and yet there are these amazing pockets of high-impact influence where dads are a positively vital part of things we might not have thought they'd be so important to. It turns out that fathers--albeit unwittingly sometimes--teach their children not only how to learn and use language effectively, but to learn all kinds of things about the world cognitively and socially. But then, men in general are teachers--or at least they like to think of themselves that way.

So says researcher, author, and therapist Steven Stosny, who told me recently, "Fathers are special because they have this desire to always be teachingOeso when they see their children misbehave, for example, they might see it as an assault on their ability to teach. And they may get angry at the child for reminding them that they're a bad parent." The desire by many men to have all the answers, so to speak, can cause some dads grief. "If you see parenting as just teaching," Stosny says, "then it's going to be arduous."

My point is this: Fathers teach with purpose, and they teach when they don't know they're teaching, and the result is pretty much the same thing either way--their children watch, listen, and learn. This is true not only of dads who help their children academically, such as by beefing up their early literacy skills, but it's true as well when fathers teach their kids how to interact in their interpersonal relationships with others, Stosny says.

Moms do this too, but Stosny zeroes in on dads, noting, "Children learn how to behave in relationships by watching their fathers. Even if the dad does not live with the child's mother, the children are keenly aware of the way the dad interacts with her." Dads have a lot to teach, clearly, whether it's how to use language in the world of verbal conversation or how to get along with others interpersonally.

Moms might be the glue holding it all together for our children, but dads are coming on strong these days, at least so far as research into such matters wants to imply, and our children and our programs are all the better for father involvement.

Today, like every day, is a great one for getting and keeping dads involved.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter! Project™ for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


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