mathias sager - School & Advisory for my daughter Natalie

Fathers: More than a playmate


There may be two primary caregiver roles: one of a secure haven and one of exploration and discovery. These functions are not gender-specific though. Across different cultures, fathers who are alone with their children show similar behavior as mothers. Dual attachment offers the opportunity for children to build sensitive relationships with their fathers too, which is important for their development throughout life. Awareness should be increased regarding the risks and (socio-cultural) barriers that exist about fathers’ family involvement. 

There was a lot of debate whether fathers’ role in parenting is one that involves play from nature or culture perspective [1]. Rather than nature or culture, a more precise answer may lie in a more biocultural approach [2]. Attachment theory traditionally focused on the quality of bonds required for forming a secure attachment that serves ensuring safety against threats from an evolutionary perspective. Bowlby acknowledged in 2010, however, also the need for studying the human drive for exploration that may be well based on a secure base as described before, and therefore extending attachment theory towards two primary attachment figures who would diversify into two different but equally important roles: one of a secure haven and one of discovery and excitement. These functions are not gender based [3].

Across different cultures, fathers’ behavior when together (alone) with their children was similar to that of mothers with their children [2]. Studies found differences between the styles of mothers and fathers in some countries (e.g., India, France, Italy, and Switzerland), but not in other cultures (e.g., Aka, Sweden, Taiwan) where fathers did not play more with their children than mothers did [1]. That leads a possible conclusion that the dual attachment model might apply more to Western than to Eastern cultures where collectivist culture may be considered to be socializing for a more generic group functioning rather than building close relationships with different specific individuals [3]. Also, in adolescence, a natural tendency to extend the primary parental attachment to peers occurs [5].

Another aspect influencing the play-behavior in father-children behavior may be the child’s temperament that is, according to goodness-of-fit model, requiring parents to respond to the child’s interest and need [6]. The characteristic of the relationship between a child and its father may have bidirectional effects [4].

It seems like a father is not a mere playmate at all and research evidence that father’s sensitive involvement in child rearing is impacting a child’s development and success as an adult the same way as that of mothers. There is the risk factor of having more than 40% of children in the UK and US being of insecure attachment style. Another attachment risk represents long (i.e., full day) impersonal childcare and a third factor is parental separation (i.e., losing mom or dad as a primary caregiver). All these risks need to be taken into account when considering a child’s emotional development [3]. Fathering issues also exist from the point of view that their involvement often remains limited, for example, by long working hours at the workplace. Health professionals and family therapists should be aware of fathering issues inclusive related social barriers that are hindering fathers from higher family involvement [7].


[1] Lewis, C., & Lamb, M. E. (2003). Fathers’ Influences on Children’s Development: The Evidence from Two-Parent Families. European Journal Of Psychology Of Education, 18(2), 211-228.

[2] Mackey, W. C. (2001). Support for the existence of an independent man-to-child affiliative bond: Fatherhood as a biocultural invention. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity, 2(1), 51-66. doi:10.1037/1524-9220.2.1.51

[3] Newland, L. )., & Coyl, D. ). (2010). Fathers’ role as attachment figures: An interview with Sir Richard Bowlby. Early Child Development And Care, 180(1-2), 25-32. doi:10.1080/03004430903414679

[4] Newland, L. A., Hui-Hua, C., & Coyl-Shepherd, D. D. (2013). ASSOCIATIONS AMONG FATHER BELIEFS, PERCEPTIONS, LIFE CONTEXT, INVOLVEMENT, CHILD ATTACHMENT AND SCHOOL OUTCOMES IN THE U.S. AND TAIWAN. Fathering: A Journal Of Theory, Research & Practice About Men As Fathers, 11(1), 3-30. doi:10.3149/fth.1101.3

[5] Güngör, D., Bornstein, M., Güngör, D., & Bornstein, M. H. (2010). Culture-general and -specific associations of attachment avoidance and anxiety with perceived parental warmth and psychological control among Turk and Belgian adolescents. Journal Of Adolescence, 33(5), 593-602. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2009.12.005

[6] Wong, M., Mangelsdorf, S., Brown, G., Neff, C., Schoppe-Sullivan, S., Wong, M. S., & … Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J. (2009). Parental beliefs, infant temperament, and marital quality: associations with infant-mother and infant-father attachment. Journal Of Family Psychology, 23(6), 828-838. doi:10.1037/a0016491

[7] Walmsley, C., Strega, S., Brown, L., Dominelli, L., & Callahan, M. (2009). Fathers in the Canadian BSW Curriculum. Canadian Social Work Review, 26(1), 73.

  • Great post with substantiated fact. Fathers along side mothers are so very critical in a child’s development. So often we are quick to pull the child from the stream, dry them off and give them new cloths multiple times without looking up stream to examine what is causing them to fall in. Our opinion is the breakdown of the family is what pushes them in. Until we restore the family unit we’re going to be pulling a lot of children and adults from the stream only to do it over and over. Thank you Mathias for presenting this.

    • I agree, thank you so much for these details, and giving me the opportunity to add the following. I appreciate the concept of family, and it provides a clear framework and helpful guideline. For me, however, the idea of the family shouldn’t be defined narrowly. Even when separated couples with children should find a way to stay partners regarding their shared parenting responsibility. Inflexible thinking models of “all-or-nothing” in the sense of having a conventionally happy marriage or going into hostile divorce with abusing a child for revenge purposes and the like is not mature behavior in my opinion. Society should foster not only family units but also cross-unit cooperative attitudes. Seeming intact families may be broken inside too. Therefore, it is about children seeing their parents loving them and arranging for their best, regardless of marital and residential status. I have researched and written a lot about that, and I’m convinced it is possible:-).

      • We agree with you Mathias. There must be that cooperative cross unit attitude so each can thrive. So fundamental for healthy growth. Thank you for sharing this so we can build upon it.