Do parents owe their children something

What makes a good father

Children are women’s business. Until recently, most scientists believed that too. But for some years now, researchers have increasingly been focusing on men. Fathers are obviously much more important suspected for a child's development as a long time.

Text: Jochen Metzger
Pictures: Johan Bävman

Something strange happened in June 2016. Scientists from all over the world had booked a flight to Detroit to board the bus going west. After an hour they reached a neat little university town called Ann Arbor. “This was the first time we had the leading people from the Patriarchal research together, ”says Brenda Volling, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

For more than 30 years she has been researching what fathers do differently from mothers, how they play with their children - and how important they are for the development of their daughters and sons. “At first, hardly any of my colleagues took me seriously,” says Brenda Volling. "The entire research revolved around the mothers." But the world has changed. For family psychologists - and for the families themselves. Together with their pregnant partner, most men today experience the moment when the picture of their child first appears on the monitor of an ultrasound machine.

Today, more than 84 percent of fathers cuddle with their children and use it to create physical closeness.

In the circle hall they hear the first scream with which their newborn baby greets the world. They wrap, feed, comfort, play. Just a few decades ago, all of this was the exception. In the meantime it happens with the utmost of course - our society has completely redefined the role of the father.

But what does it mean today to be a "good father"? There are always new scientific studies on it surprising answers. And the networking between scientists is also getting better and better. Researchers from Switzerland, Austria and Germany have founded their own network called CENOF. The abbreviation stands for "Central European Network on Fatherhood".

Fathers often see themselves as a kind of temporary babysitter

It is no coincidence that the German-speaking group has given itself an English name: father research has long since become an international, worldwide project. It is still pure basic research that appears in the specialist journals. However, parents can already take a few scientific findings with them into their everyday lives.

Hardly any psychologist today denies that children benefit from their fathers to an incredible extent. But the data also shed light on a completely different side of the family system: Fathers often see themselves as a second-class caregiver, as a kind Temporary babysitter for the times when mom just can't.

“The fathers still haven't realized how important they are. That is our key message as a research group, ”says Brenda Volling. Several studies now show what happens when fathers take themselves and their role as caregivers for their children seriously. When you feel “meant” and responsible as soon as your baby cries, as soon as it wants to play “ringmaster” or “tea party” when it is kindergarten age, as soon as it needs help with homework as a school child.

Comforting good fathers, good fathers play, good fathers help - good fathers take care of themselves. And when they do that, they set in motion something for themselves and for the whole family, which the emotional psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls «Upward spiral of blossoming» designated. They lower the stress level of their partner, they strengthen the bond with their child, they experience themselves as more effective and more satisfied, they improve the relationship with their partner. The whole family benefits from it.

Six different principles bundle the findings of current research. Not all of them sound particularly new or revolutionary. Yet they explain why the vast majority of fathers are right on track with what they are doing.

1. Good fathers are good partners

Traditionally, psychologists have given fathers a minor role. The story went like this: In the first few years of life, the child above all needs a secure, trusting, secure bond with an adult. This is how the children's brain can develop optimally, and everything will be fine. “In fact, attachment theory is still our most important tool,” says Brenda Volling. “And I don't think anyone should turn away from her. Nobody will deny that this first relationship is the foundation on which children build their lives. "

This "first relationship" seems naturally to be the relationship with the mother. Sure: the child grows in her stomach. It is born from her. It is nursed by her. It gives the child the security they need. The father - so the traditional statement of the attachment theory - should support his partner where he can and make her life easier.

"The fathers still haven't realized how important they are."

Brenda Volling, father researcher

"I don't know of a single study in which a good couple relationship would have been bad for the child," says Brenda Volling. “But I know a lot of research that shows a clearly bad effect on children when parents often quarrel, when they yell at each other or when they undermine each other's authority.

The children are overwhelmed by it, they cannot handle it very well. " Good fathers are good partners - or at least try to be good partners. However, the attachment theory has recently seen some surprising extensions.

Researchers from Israel have investigated what happens when the father, rather than the mother, becomes the first caregiver of a small child. The results were a sensation: The fathers showed the same sensitive and attentive behavior that one can otherwise observe in mothers. In the brain, activation patterns occur that are more typical for mothers, especially in those areas where emotions are processed.

Even the fathers' hormonal balance changed. The psychobiologist Ulrike Ehlert from the University of Zurich found out a few years ago that fathers of small children often have noticeably low testosterone levels and are therefore probably more patient with their children.

It has now been shown that the production of the cuddle hormone oxytocin also fluctuates in fathers: It increases in a similar way to that of young mothers. Even a hormone called prolactin is increasingly released in the transition phase to paternity - in mothers it stimulates milk production. In some animals, father prolactin ensures greater involvement in the rearing of the young.

What function it fulfills in human fathers is currently being investigated by anthropologists at the University of Notre Dame in the USA. All these results "suggest that evolution knows other ways to good parenting than the old path through pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, which is reserved for women only," writes the Israeli brain researcher Eyal Abraham.

In other words, if a father wants and gets the opportunity, then he can actually be something of a great mother.

2. Good fathers fight

The second and possibly more important extension of attachment theory, however, aims in a different direction. She not only pays attention to the safety and security of the children, but also to hers Activation, their courage, their spirit of research, their desire to conquer the world. "Fathers tend to play with their children in a different way," says Brenda Volling. “They tend to play more physically. And for a long time, research did not understand at all how important this more physical game is for children's development. "

Research teams from Canada and Australia in particular have been dealing with this for some time Fighting and fighting games by fathers and children. Incidentally, the first basic findings of this young research direction come from observing animals. It was found that rats owe part of their social skills to the playful wrestling matches of their childhood and that they solve problems better if they are allowed to romp around extensively as young animals. Of course, humans are not rats. We fight differently than other mammals - and parents play a much bigger role in us.

Comforting good fathers, good fathers play, good fathers help - good fathers take care of themselves.

Human children learn a lot for life when they regularly romp with their fathers. you will be more confident and can better with setbacks handle yourself better in school focus, your Regulate feelings better. An Australian study from 2016 even found that children who often fight with dads take better care of their bodies and less often with injuries return home. You have evidently learned while romping assess their own limits, for example in the so-called "sock game". You try to take off a sock from the other without losing your own.

Should you let your child win? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Most researchers are convinced: Children long to feel how strong dad is, how well he can protect the family. On the other hand, one can observe in the fighting games of all mammals that the stronger sometimes lets the weaker win - and thus signals that everything is just great fun.

So good fathers sometimes lose and encourage their children to make an effort. But mostly they win. In fact, the good consequences of romping disappear as soon as the children are always given victory. The best Formula for good fighting comes from the Australian father researcher Richard Fletcher. It is: "I'm much stronger than you. And I love you very much."

3. Good fathers read aloud and ask questions

It's no surprise that fathers love to romp around. But what about their influence on children's linguistic development? We know that women, on average, have better communication skills. Words, books, reading aloud - all of this therefore seems to be more of a mother's affair. But here too, researchers have long underestimated the influence of fathers. Children benefit enormously from having their parents read to them regularly.

In the long run, they'll become better readers; they get better at math; they can concentrate better; they show fewer behavioral problems. This is what it says in a study by the University of North Carolina, which examined more than 5,000 American families. The contribution of the fathers was smaller than that of the mothers. On average, they read aloud less - because they come home late from work, because they don't enjoy reading, or because they think they are doing worse than their partner.

However, the work of the University of Maryland's psychologist Natasha Cabrera has shown: As soon as fathers read aloud regularly and like to do so, their contribution to the development of the children is even greater than that which maternal reading makes. Even when they argue with their children, fathers do it differently; they ask more often because they did not understand the child exactly. As a result, the children's vocabulary is growing astonishingly.

Researchers believe: Through their inquiries, fathers act like a “bridge” out into the world. It may be that mom reads every wish from the lips of the children. But you have to explain to the rest of the world what you want - and conversations with dad are the best training camp for that.

4. Comfort good fathers - as best you can

There are some things that mothers can do better in most societies. For example, comfort. Research has been carried out into how parents behave when their child wakes up from surgical anesthesia in the hospital. Fathers and mothers alike try to give their child a sense of security and calm - especially through touch and body contact. However, the mothers do this more intensively and over a longer period of time than the fathers. The men have clearly caught up in this regard.

The Bern-based educational scientist Margrit Stamm has shown that today more than 84 percent of fathers cuddle with their children and thus establish physical closeness. Nevertheless, a higher percentage of children and adolescents still manage to build a closer relationship of trust with their mother than with their father. If they need help, they are more likely to go to her than to him. What effects does this have on children's development?

The father should support his partner where he can and make her life easier.

Several studies from the USA, Canada and Israel come to identical results on this question: School children who are securely attached to both parents develop better social skills and report fewer problems in everyday life. The simultaneous attachment to father and mother acts as a «protective factor» against loneliness, feelings of fear and depression. This effect was actually expected for those children who are only securely attached to their mother.

With them, however, the protective effect was significantly weaker. “These results show that we need to take a closer look at the role that a close relationship between adolescents and their fathers plays,” says a research report from Tel Aviv University. “Some studies only look at men, others only look at women,” explains Brenda Volling. “But there is no point playing fathers and mothers off against each other. Ultimately, it's about drawing the big picture and showing how parents can work together to do the best for their children. "

5. Good fathers stay home (sometimes)

But why is it that father research has recently become so important? The experts say: especially about the fathers themselves - and about the society in which they live. Today fathers spend four times more time with their children, when that was still the case in the 1960s.

“Back then, Papa came home from work and was waiting for his wife to serve him a martini. His job was to make money for the family. Upbringing was entirely a woman's business, ”says Brenda Volling. “This father type hardly exists today. The fathers take it for granted that they are involved in the upbringing of the children. "

In other words: It is the new fathers who make a new kind of research necessary. But these new fathers still have a hard time. In Switzerland, more than 80 percent of them still work full-time and spend fewer hours with their kids than they'd like. Part-time work is often not supported by employers. But what happens when fathers take a radical step, when they stay at home and hand over the job of breadwinner to their partner?

Wassilios Fthenakis, the gray eminence of the German-speaking father research, considers this an "important experience" (see interview). However, a study from Canada shows a different side: The researchers wanted to know how modern fathers are portrayed in films and TV series. The result: The committed but fully employed father is more likely to be portrayed as a likeable winner. On the other hand, those who stay at home as a father almost always appear as an unmanly failure, who doesn't get his life right - full-time dad still doesn't seem to be a desirable career goal, at least on the other side of the Atlantic.

6. Good fathers are real men

The father researcher Tawfiq Ammari from Jordan described how some “Stay Home Dads” get back their male self-image in an original way at the CSCW conference in Portland, USA, in March 2017. He found full-time fathers in interviews and in self-written blogs repeatedly use a kind of “home improvement language” to report on their everyday life. In fact, they do some of their jobs in a particularly masculine way - for example, stirring cake batter with a drill or screwing their children's Halloween masks together in the hobby room instead of buying them in the store.

But even the pure interpretation of their role is emphatically masculine. The fathers, for example, stage themselves not as "housemen", but as "family entrepreneurs" («Dadpreneurs») who reduce household expenses with well thought-out plans.Other fathers take their male pride from the fact that they and the children do repairs on the house themselves without having to call a craftsman.

The self-image as “DIY dad”, Ammari concludes, enables fathers to lead a life seen as “typically female” without having to give up their masculine self-image. In other words: Good fathers look after their children like mothers - but they really want to stay real guys. There were a number of very successful radio broadcasts in post-war England. She addressed a simple question: How do you become a good mother?

The creator of the series, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, has done a tremendous amount for the well-being of families on the island. His central thesis was: No mother has to be perfect. In order for your child to grow up happily, it is sufficient if they are “good enough”. The father research of the year 2017 tells a very similar story: It may be that one dad is a great partner, that the other fights, reads, comforts, stays at home while preserving his masculinity. But as long as he does all of this from the heart, in his own way, he will be "good enough" - and the best father anyone could ever wish for his child.


  • Wassilios E. Fthenakis et al .: Dedicated fatherhood. The gentle revolution in the family. Verlag Leske and Budrich, 1999, approx. CHF 18.–
  • Richard Rohr, Thomas Gesterkamp, ​​Wassilios E. Fthenakis: Father, Son and Masculinity. Verlag Tyrolia, 2001, from Fr. 6.–
  • Walter Hollstein: What was left of the man. The disregarded gender. Verlag Opus Magnum, 2012, approx. CHF 26.–
  • Victor Chu: Fatherly love. Verlag Klett- Cotta, 2016, approx. Fr. 26.–
  • Dave Engledow: Dad home alone. 77 things mom shouldn't know about. Heyne-Verlag, 2015, approx. Fr. 14.–


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