CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Mothers and fathers play different roles and make different contributions to a child's upbringing, but a father's influence upon a child's academic success later in life is felt the most when he's involved from the very beginning, says a University of Illinois expert in early childhood education.
While a mother's involvement in school was found to be positively related to a child's academic achievement, a father's involvement was found to be negatively related to later student achievement, according to Brent McBride, a professor of human development at Illinois.
When it comes to schooling, fathers are typically only summoned late in the game when the light is blinking red – "when the child is going to flunk, is going to get expelled, is getting held back or is exhibiting a behavior problem, which would account for the negative relationship," McBride said.
"Men typically don't become engaged in the school process until there's a problem. Then you have the big conference where both parents come in, sit down and sort everything out."
But if a father hasn't engaged with a child before they go off to school, "there's even less likelihood he's going to be engaged even when there is a problem in school," McBride said.
"That's why it's not hard to understand why men don't become involved in the school process that much, because they're not involved early on in the process."
According to McBride, there's a clear relationship between what fathers do early in a child's life and how much they're involved once their child goes off to school.
"If fathers establish early on that they're going to actively engage in the parenting process," he said, "they're much more likely to continue that engagement as they grow older."
Along with establishing a model for themselves, fathers who are devoted participants in their child's early years are also setting up expectations within the family unit that their partners see "as active engagement in the child's life," McBride said. "And when the child sees that, they grow to expect it. They know that Daddy wants to be involved, and respond to it."
McBride, who also is the director of the university's Child Development Laboratory, believes one of the reasons men have trouble having adjusting to the role of father is because fatherhood is, in some ways, less scripted than motherhood.
"If you're not used to being around children, or you don't understand how children develop, parenting may seem awkward and even somewhat intimidating," he said. "We need to help fathers realize that what they do is really important. If we wait and only get fathers involved when kids are having problems in school, that's too late."
Fathers and father figures, McBride says, can have at least as much of a unique impact on a child as mothers do, and therefore should be seen as co-equal partners in parenting.
"We shouldn't forget about what men are doing in the family constellation," he said. "When we talk about arenas or domains that have typically been the mother's expertise, we are too quick to dismiss the father as having any impact at all. It's important when we talk about issues of early parenting that we not to get locked into the 'parents equals mothers' mindset."
One of the keys to changing that mindset is working with service providers – teachers, social service workers and daycare workers – to change their perception of fathers.
"We have to work with service providers so that they recognize that if they want to get men more engaged in the process, which most professionals would concur with, then let's focus on getting them engaged from day one of a child's life," McBride said.
Typically, when children are sick, there's a "high probability that daycare or school will call the mother and not the father first," he said. Not necessarily because the mother is better informed about the child's health, McBride said, but because "that's how they're socialized to think, that Mom is the only one who can respond in that situation."
"It's a totally different mindset, one where Mommy isn't necessarily called first when something goes wrong. But they're the key to really having an effect and changing what goes on in families."
McBride said these analyses suggest that we need to think more about men, fatherhood and what role they play as parents.
"We need to look at the bigger picture, because these analyses all point to the same conclusion: that men and women each contribute uniquely to child outcomes," he said. "Any chance we get to help men discover what fatherhood really means to them and give them a model toward that engagement."