BERLIN — Peter Seher sits on his balcony in Berlin-Wilmersdorf enjoying the late afternoon sun. He looks at the large puddles of water beneath his feet. It was nice and warm today, so after work the stockbroker set up a little wading pool on the balcony for his young daughter Hanna. "She really got going when she saw that," he says. "She hugged me, spent about an hour, super-excited, playing with her water pistol, and then came and gave me a kiss."
Does he think his 5-year-old is making something for him in nursery school for Father’s Day? "Oh yeah, Father’s Day!" The 37-year-old says. "I'd forgotten about that." And Seher isn't the only onen who's forgetten. Mother's Day still has a different, emotionally charged meaning that Father’s Day doesn't.
In Western thought, the relationship between mother and child has traditionally played a central role where the happiness and development of children are concerned. Mothers get the praise and recognition for raising a child, but also the responsibility and blame when a child goes astray. Fathers, on the other hand, didn't play much of a role in the social conversation about parenting until the late 1960s — and hardly any role in scientific debate.
How important fathers are to the happiness and development of their children has only recently become well-understood. When research about the role of fathers finally began, it revealed that not only do fathers influence their kids as much as a mother does, but for certain areas of their development the father's role is more important than the mother's.
One of the first researchers to study the long-neglected father's role was Ronald Rohner. The now-retired American psychologist launched the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut and in the early 1970s conducted research about fathers.
In a 1975 comparative study of 101 different cultures, he found that children whose father lived with the family were treated with more acceptance and warmth by the mother and other caregivers. Rohner's work on fathers motivated many other scientists to follow his example, and the paternal role in child development came into stronger focus.
In 2012, at the end of his career, Rohner and colleagues from 13 countries published a unique overview of all their results from the previous decades in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. Regardless of whether you're dealing with fathers or mothers the bottom line is this: When a child feels unloved or rejected, the greater the risk that he or she will turn into an aggressive and emotionally unstable adult. Lack of self-confidence, a feeling of inadequacy, and a negative world view are other frequent results.
Rohner stressed that this applied to rejection by either parent equally. But the results of over 500 studies that also appear in the publication show that rejection by the father affects a child more than rejection by the mother.
A father's rejection is worse
Researchers suspect that children possess a very sure sense of who in the family, mother or father, has the greater say. In the past, that was often the father, so that rejection played a greater role in the development of self-esteem. "In such cases, whatever the father does and says is accorded greater attention than what the mother does or says," Rohner explains. "So the father has more influence."
Some studies have shown that in certain areas of child development the attitude and behavior of the father have fundamentally more weight regardless of who plays what role in the family hierarchy. When fathers treat their kids with little regard, if they reject them or act hostile towards them, the children develop an above-average number of behavioral problems, depressive tendencies, and often become drug-addicted or delinquent — even if the mother loves the child unconditionally and is supportive.
"Feeling loved by the father is a better indicator that a child will have a sense of well-being and satisfaction with life later on than feeling loved by the mother is," Rohner says. And as research conducted by psychiatrist Raul Ramchandani at the Imperial College of London shows, this becomes apparent during the child's first year.
In that study, children whose fathers had intense and loving relationships with them from the time they were a few months old were better developed and had more social competence at age one. That was even more apparent with boys than it was with girls.
The way a father behaves with a child is often very different from the way a mother behaves. "Fathers tend to play physical games with kids, they grapple and scuffle, and this stimulates a child's sense of competition and independence as well as the courage to take risks," Rohner says.
The modern family
That description certainly fits Peter Seher, whose family also includes 13-year-old Patrick along with his partner Steffi. "With the kids, I’m the action person," he says. But he’s also the one more likely to say no, and who doesn't want his kids to grow up too sheltered.
"I don't always volunteer to help right away if something isn't going right," he says. "I believe kids have to try things out, make mistakes, and try again. If something still doesn't work, then I don't hold back. I help them."
A scientific study carried out at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, suggests that this is a good approach. In the Journal of Early Adolescence, the researchers report that children tend to learn perseverance and tenacity more from their father than from their mother. Fathers who successfully transmit these characteristics to their children are warm-hearted, dependable, and loving, yet set clear rules and boundaries that they are also good at explaining to their kids. They are also good at giving their children age-appropriate autonomy.
Why fathers are more important to kids in this regard is something the researchers could not explain. They suspect that dads consider staying power as being more important than moms do and therefore focus on it more. Mothers, on the other hand, concentrate more on developing characteristics like thankfulness and good manners in their children, according to researchers.
Peter Seher places a lot of weight on those characteristics too. "It's important to me that my kids learn how to get along with others," he says. "That you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and not ‘I want’ and ‘gimme.’"
His partner Steffi is doing the cooking today so Seher can take time to talk to us. But generally, along with his job and maintaining a blog called Herdzeit.de, Seher does the cooking, and Hanna often wants to help. "Then I set up a chair for her and let her stir stuff, and very occasionally do some chopping."
Fifty years ago, behavior like this — doing the daily cooking with a child helping out — would have been extremely unusual for a man. As unusual as it was back then to ask questions about the role of a father in a child's development. It was only when women started turning their backs on cooking that the male-dominated world of research got going in the subject.
Seher finds it all pretty funny, saying that it's logical that fathers are just as important and just as responsible for a child's happiness in life as mothers are. Before we tuck into an Italian rice salad with rucola, dried tomatoes and mozzarella balls, he says, "Sometimes when I settle Hanna down for the night and she's all drowsy and cuddly, I get the feeling that I'm irreplaceable."