We spend a lot of time talking about mothers as primary early attachment figures. But, as after celebrating Fathers this month, we want to stress dad’s essential role during infancy in fostering secure attachment.

Just as with mothers, infants are more likely to be securely attached to fathers who have been sensitively responsive. Although an “attachment hierarchy” usually exists—a strong tendency for infants to prefer a principal attachment figure (e.g., mother; special caregiver in an orphanage)—fathers have a significant influence on attachment and child development (Bowlby 1988b). Until quite recently in human evolution, infants remained close to their mothers because of the necessity of breastfeeding for survival. The major role of the father was to protect the family from external threats. Cultural anthropologists who study primitive hunter-gatherer societies offer evidence of this gender-role adaptation; close relationships between fathers and infants were found in only three of the 80 nonindustrial cultures surveyed (West & Kanner 1976; cited in Colin 1996, p. 167).

More recently, we have come to realize that fathers are capable of caring for and attaching to their children. Mothers possess qualities that place them in the role of the primary attachment figure, such as breastfeeding ability and secretion of hormones during pregnancy and after birth that promote caregiving. Gender role socialization and expectations also encourage mothers to care for their young more than fathers. Nevertheless, research and observation clearly show that fathers are important attachment figures and crucial members of the family system.

Although fathers are not as biologically and culturally primed, they are capable of the same “motherly” behaviors as women. The sight of their newborn triggers a similar range of loving behaviors, including protection, giving, and responsiveness to the infant’s needs. Human fathers stay with their offspring and care for them more than any other primates. Studies show that the more the father is involved in the pregnancy and delivery, and the sooner he holds the child after birth, the more absorbed and interested he is in continuing a positive involvement (Greenberg & Morris 1974). The father’s self-confidence increases as he handles the baby, and as his parenting instincts emerge, so does his level of commitment.

Unfortunately, the problem of absent fathers continues to grow, producing long-term damage to children.

Consider the following data from the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • In 1968, about 60.0 million (85%) U.S. children under 18 lived with two parents. By 2020, the number of children living with two parents had slipped to 51.3 million (70%).
  • In 1986, the United States became the leader in fatherless families, passing Sweden. About 7.6 million (11%) children lived with their mother only in 1968 compared to 15.3 million (21%) in 2020.
  • Today, 18.3 million children in the United States live without a father in the home, comprising about 1 in 4 children.
  • 18% of European American children, 28% of Hispanic children, and 53% of African American children in the United States live with their mothers only.

There are a number of negative effects of a father’s absence on the family and in reference to the psychosocial adjustment and development of children (Lamb 1997). First, there is the absence of a co-parent; i.e., two partners to help with child care, participation in decision making, and giving the mother a break from the demands of parenting. Second, there is the economic stress that accompanies single motherhood; the income of single mother-headed households is lower than any other family group (Peterson & Thoennes 1990). Third, a high degree of emotional stress is experienced by single mothers who feel isolated and alone, and by children who are affected by perceived or actual abandonment. Last, children suffer as a result of hostility and destructive conflict between caregivers (e.g., pre-divorce and post-divorce marital conflict). Children living with their mothers are often exposed to violence and conflict between parents (current or historical). Overt hostility between parents is associated with child behavior problems, including childhood aggression (Cumming 1994; Grych & Fincham 1990). Thus, a father’s absence is harmful to children and families, not only due to the lack of a gender-specific role model, but because the emotional, social, and economic aspects of a father’s role are not fulfilled.

Fathers as Attachment Figures

When men do care for their children, they tend to interact with, nurture, and generally rear children competently, but differently from women. Not worse, not better, but differently (Pruett 2001). Mothers typically hold their infants in a relaxed and quiet manner, whereas fathers more often activate or stimulate their infants prior to holding them close. This trait leads to more playful and novel interaction over time (Parke 1990). Fathers encourage their babies to solve physical and intellectual challenges, even past the signs of frustration. Mothers encourage exploration but are more apt to help the child once frustration is apparent (Biller & Meredith 1974).

Research shows that fathers tend to spend a larger percentage of time interacting with children through play than mothers (Pruett 2001, 2009). Paternal play with children is characterized by more active and stimulating interactions (“rough-housing”). This type of play may serve the purpose of preparing children for the rough and tumble “real world” beyond the mother’s more intimate attunement style. Young children who play regularly with their fathers have better peer relationships, greater self-confidence, and are better at coping and learning, compared to children who do not have engaged fathers (Pruett 2001).

Fathers are important and highly valued attachment figures in many families. Pedersen (1980) found that the more actively involved a 6-month-old had been with their father, the higher the baby scored on infant development scales. Paternal involvement was also found to significantly reduce the effects of long-term vulnerability for at-risk, premature infants (Yogman 1989). Laboratory procedures designed to assess separations and reunions, found that a father’s presence had similar effects on babies and toddlers as the mother’s, just less intense: babies cried when the mother or father left, but cried less for their father; they explored and played less during the absence of either parent, but less so when the mother was gone; they would cling to mother and father when they reunite, but less intensely to father. The children clearly related to their fathers as attachment figures who served as a secure base (Kotelchuck 1976).

Infants observed in the home, ages 7 to 13 months, showed no preference for mothers over fathers on most attachment measures (e.g., proximity seeking, touching, crying, signaling desire to be held, protesting on separation, greeting on reunion) (see Lamb 1997, for research review). When infants are distressed, however, they consistently prefer their mothers, supporting the notion that children arrange their attachments in a hierarchy. Finally, the distribution of infant patterns of attachment to mothers is basically the same as for fathers (65% secure, 25% avoidant, 10% resistant) (Main & Weston 1981). While one secure attachment was better than none, children found to be securely attached to both parents were most competent and confident and displayed more empathy (Main & Weston 1981; Easterbrooks & Goldberg 1991).

Karen writes, “Although fathers are usually secondary caregivers, they are not merely secondary mothers” (1994, p. 204). They provide valuable stimulation, and playfulness and serve as a stepping-stone to the outside world, where people are commonly not “in-synch” and attuned. They facilitate the child’s ability (especially sons) to move outside the mother’s orbit. They provide role models for their sons and invaluable models to daughters regarding their relationships with men. Lamb (1997), in his book on the father’s role in child development, offers a number of salient conclusions based on 30 years of research and observation in the field:

  • Fathers and mothers influence their children in similar ways; warmth, nurturance, and closeness are associated with well-adjusted and healthy children whether the caregiver is a mother or father.
  • Characteristics of individual fathers (e.g., masculinity, intellect) are much less important than the quality of the relationship established; children who have secure, supportive, reciprocal, and sensitive relationships with their fathers (or mothers) do better on every measure.
  • The amount of time fathers and children spend together is less important than the quality of their time together.
  • The family context is often more influential than individual relationships; the father-child relationship must be viewed within the broader family context (e.g., a father’s relationship with their partner or spouse and with other children; how significant others perceive and evaluate the father-child relationship).
  • Fathers play multiple roles in the family—nurturing parent, protector, disciplinarian, breadwinner, emotional partner, and playmate. Fathers affect their children’s development and adjustment based on their success in all of these roles.
  • A father can only be understood by the standards of his sociocultural context; his role varies according to individual, familial, and cultural values.