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Criticism by Mom Helps Determine if Dad Takes Care of Baby

There's one simple thing that can help children develop better cognitive skills, succeed more in school and be more emotionally stable – it's having a father involved in their lives and in their care. Research has repeatedly found that kids who have fathers who are engaged in their lives do better. And, as Rose Hoban reports, the earlier fathers get involved, the more likely they'll continue that close interaction.

Some men are very involved with their children, but others, unfortunately, are not. Psychology professor Sarah Shapee-Sullivan from Ohio State University is interested in fathers, how they relate to children and what accounts for the variability in their involvement with their kids. She wondered if mothers' attitudes played a part in how involved fathers were in childrearing. So she recruited couples that were about to have their first baby.

First she conducted interviews with the couples before their babies were born. "We asked them some questions," she says, "specifically questions about their expectations, their beliefs about how involved fathers should be in caring for children." After the babies were born, the researchers went back to the couples. "We had them complete some surveys about their relative involvement in caring for the child, … how much the mom was doing and how much the dad was doing."

Shapee-Sullivan didn't just ask the parents about their behavior, she also observed them. She watched how they interacted with each other and with their child, because she wanted to actually see if the moms were encouraging their partner's involvement.

"[For instance], when the dad does something that the mom doesn't approve of with the baby, does the mom, you know, roll her eyes, or look exasperated, or not say anything but re-do the child care task when the father has left?" Shapee-Sullivan gives the example of a father who dresses the baby in an outfit that the mother doesn't approve of, "Does she maybe not say anything but dress the baby in a different outfit… so that the father can see later on that, 'oh, the baby is in new clothes.'"

Shapee-Sullivan found fathers with critical partners were less likely to report spending a lot of time with their children. She says even after allowing for factors such as whether the mothers worked outside the home, or the couples' beliefs about childrearing, fathers who received criticism from mothers tended to withdraw from being involved with their children.

Shapee-Sullivan says she doesn't want to appear as if she's criticizing women, or blaming them for problems with childrearing, but she says you can't discount the role of the mother. "At least as mothers and dads were seeing it, the mother was playing an important role in potentially affecting how involved the dad was," she notes, adding, "but of course, dads have to be motivated in the first place. They have to want to be involved." And an encouraging mother, she says, may help those men stay engaged in childcare.

Shapee-Sullivan's research is published in the Journal of Family Psychology.