Fathers must be encouraged to embrace paternal role
Father’s Day is just around the corner and hopefully, this year, we will celebrate it with much fanfare. We have learned through seminal research on well-being that social connections make people happier in the long run. No one has said it better than the research team at Harvard that studied people for nearly 80 years and concluded that happiness is to be found with family, friends and in social circles.
Traditionally, women have always been the dominant providers of family care. However, recent labor market and cultural shifts have propelled governments to look again at their family policies to ensure that fathers take on a much more influential role within the family than just being the breadwinners. A shared understanding of the importance of paternal engagement with children is a fundamental first step toward devising the necessary public policies aimed at achieving well-being in the family home.
We can see the evolving role of fathers worldwide. Couples are no longer expected to assign the exclusive roles of breadwinner to the male and domestic and child care to the woman. Therefore, many governments have, in recent years, promoted more family-friendly policies to reconcile work and family responsibilities, especially to support women’s growing employment participation and their contribution to household earnings. Such policies can affect a nation on a grand scale, determining economic performance and productivity levels, sustainable pension systems, increased government tax revenues, fertility rates, population growth rates, household incomes, and child well-being.
Research has, for decades, explored the impact of paternal involvement on children and has affirmed an array of remarkable benefits. This can be seen as early as infancy, wherein children of engaged, caring and playful fathers are seen to be more inquisitive, emotionally stable and social than their peers. As they grow older, these children reap additional benefits from their fathers’ doting and attention: They have higher IQs, better educational outcomes, and strong linguistic and cognitive abilities. They have better physical, emotional and mental health overall. And children with more involved fathers are less likely to experience depression or exhibit delinquent behaviors, such as experimenting with drugs or being violent.
Research has, for decades, explored the impact of paternal involvement on children and has affirmed an array of remarkable benefits
Sara Al Mulla
In Japan, we are seeing the rise of “ikumen” (hunky dads) — a word combining “ikuji” (childcare) and “ikemen” (hunk). The ikumen project is a government-led cultural movement aimed at encouraging greater paternal engagement in family life. This policy has been translated into a massive public service campaign, which features a full year of paternity leave, workshops, symposia, a handbook on work-life balance, and even featuring ikumen fathers on TV comedies and manga series. Last month, I had a chance to watch the famous 2018 Japanese animated film “Mirai,” and you can imagine my delighted surprise when I realized that the plot was about how a father takes paternity leave to care for his toddler and infant while his wife returns to full-time work.
In Sweden, you find “latte dads” hanging out with their young children in cafes while taking their generous three months of paternity leave. Time-pressed fathers benefit from paid paternity leave as it allows them to balance their careers with spending time with their children, without having to worry about lost income. Research points out that the best and most relevant time to take time off is around childbirth, when fathers are more open to changing behaviors and attitudes. This, in turn, may lead to prolonged engagement in children’s lives.
Inspired dads have even kick-started their own cultural movements to convey the joys of fatherhood. Swedish photographer Johan Bavman has launched a beautiful photo series entitled “Swedish Dads,” which chronicles the lives of fathers who have taken up their paternity leave to care for their children. Meanwhile, Mats Berggren pioneered the concept of “Pappagrupper” — male-only classes targeting fathers, facilitated by male psychologists and health staff, which are aimed at highlighting the importance of fatherhood and how they can play a positive role in their children’s lives.
In the context of the Arab world, we also see a growing interest in policies and campaigns related to fatherhood. In March 2018, the UAE’s Ministry of Community Development launched the National Family Policy, which is aimed at “achieving happiness for the Emirati family through family cohesion.” One of its key initiatives is “With You Always,” a series of workshops targeting fathers and sharing knowledge on how they can best care for their children and be a more involved parent. Also, under UAE law, fathers are entitled to paid paternity leave for three days during the month of the baby’s delivery.
I mentioned earlier that well-being is closely associated with people’s ability to live the lives they aspire to with the people they love. If the purpose of public policy is to enhance the well-being of people and communities, as we trust it to be, then we need to have a paradigm shift and allow fathers to play a positive part in their children’s emotional, social and physical well-being.
• Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.