We know how important a mother is to a young child’s growth and development. Mom is the center of a baby’s universe, typically feeding, comforting, and changing the baby’s diapers while continuing the bond created while the baby was still in Mom’s womb. Happy Mother’s Day to all those mothers!

Dads have a special role in a young child’s life as well. ZERO TO THREE says that “Young children with involved fathers tend to be more patient and better able to handle stress and frustration once they’re in school. Children with involved fathers are less likely to experience depression, obesity, teen pregnancy and more.”

Dad’s role often looks different in today’s young families. I watch my son, Nick, with his two-year-old daughter and see a much different father figure than I remember in my childhood. He shares in all caretaking tasks except bedtime, which is reserved for Mom. He dedicates time each evening to playing with Isabelle, often in more active, riskier behaviors that challenge her in positive ways. His current favorite move is to lift Isabelle very high over his head, then drop her quickly (while still in his hands) towards the ground. She screams in delight, and says, “More, more!”

ZERO TO THREE surveyed dads to see what they thought and how they felt about parenting. One of the things they said was that they felt like they were doing a good job, but they wanted to know more. They look for resources, about effective discipline, early brain development and how to handle their own feelings when overwhelmed. They want to talk with other dads, too, about what works for them.

Another important lesson learned from these dads was that they wanted their child to respect them, not fear them. We all remember the words, “Just wait until your father gets home!” If you have only had a father who used spanking and other forms of harsh punishment as a role model, you need other examples to learn ways to build a healthy, yet authoritative relationship with your child.

Ideally, both a mother and a father will be fully engaged in raising their child. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, that is not possible. Other family members, friends, and neighbors can help support children and single moms by extending the definition of family to include other people.

Ultimately, a dad or other caring adult, who is fully present, and allows the child to tell him or her what he or she enjoys and fears (through words or expressions), will make connections with the child that will last a lifetime.

Dr. Annette Searfoss is the President and CEO at First Start Partnerships for Children and Families. First Start Partnerships currently provides early education for 671 children and their families across Franklin County.

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