Recently in a New York Times interview, Elon Musk of Tesla fame, was asked how he balanced his work schedule with having a newborn. According to Dr. Dana Suskind, writing for the Brookings Institution, Musk replied, “Right now there’s not much I can do”. Suskind was surprised at his old-fashioned answer. Why? Because there is so much that Musk and all fathers can do, especially in these pandemic times.
Fathers can have a critical role in their child’s brain development. It only takes soothing words and sensitive interactions. These kinds of nurturing behaviors are critical, especially in the first three years of a child’s life. This is when brain growth is rapid. During these three years literally billions of the brain’s wiring is formed. This network of cognitive wiring becomes the headquarters for a child’s learning. According to Suskind, because of new developments in neuroscience, we know that the back and forth interactions between parents and children, and especially dads, trigger brain activity and eventually leads to stronger skills formation.
Scientific literature, including both correlational (suggesting a relationship) and empirical (cause of effect) studies, shows that when dads actively interact with babies and toddlers, good things happen. There is constructive growth in three major areas: cognitive, language, and what is known as executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.
A 2006 study showed that three year olds performed better on cognitive tests when their fathers had a history of positive engagements with their child as opposed to fathers who had negative and/or controlling interactions. Other research shows higher scores in language assessments for young children (0-3) whose fathers regularly read to them.
Other studies show that dads have a greater influence than moms when doing the same things with their kids. For example, a 2014 study indicated that toddlers read to by their fathers had a better receptive vocabulary and intellectual skills a year later. On the other hand, mothers who frequently read to their toddlers did not have the same vocabulary results, although it was a solid predictor of cognitive skills. This study’s conclusion emphasizes that fathers are not a necessary pre-condition for these vocabulary skills to grow, but it does mean that fathers have a unique ability to influence greater gains.
Suskind describes meeting a group of fathers in Arizona who have readily accepted the science of early brain development. They discussed a program called Let’s Talk Dads which describes early brain development and their important role in its growth. It includes strategies that fathers can use to constructively talk and engage with their 0-3 year old children on a daily basis. The program was funded by the Steve Nash Foundation. Nash was an NBA star player with the Phoenix Suns. The foundation is dedicated to underserved children, their health, personal development, and education.
Fathers using this program seem to have a greater appreciation for the part they can play in their child’s brain development. It also seems to make fathers more appreciative of Mom’s childcare and home making and encourage a more equitable sharing of duties.
Because of COVID19, those household duties have become even greater. In many families, the mothers have to do more than their share. A NYTimes survey indicated that 80% of those mothers surveyed said they were responsible for the homeschooling and online learning of their children, in addition to their normal household chores.
The reality is that more children are spending more time with Dad. Despite the terrible stress these times are causing, there is an opportunity for Dads to help in their child’s brain development. You can build their brains with every word you speak and every positive interaction you share. The first three years of a child’s life are critical in brain development and life-long development. This is an opportunity to set them up for realizing their life’s dreams and contribution to society.
Fathers have this amazing power in ordinary times as well. But taking advantage of it is all too often denied men by society’s norms. According to Suskind, our society doesn’t support early childhood education like it should. We need to support public and workplace policies that balance workplace duties with childcare duties. Dads will step up when given the facts and chance to do their magic.
Alan Lossner is a retired Webster County educator. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.