Goofing around is serious business
The early years are prime for father-child bonding. The preschool and grade school years are great for horsing around, shoulder rides and roughhousing. While there are plenty of dads who like quiet activities with their children, many families love the fun play that Daddy can do. This kind of silliness is an important part of bonding and growing during those formative years as well.
And if it looks like Dad is having all the fun, it may be because he is.
According to a recent study, "In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery," researchers found that fathers are happier than mothers as well as men who are not fathers.
According to author of the study, Katherine Nelson of the Positive Psychology Lab at University of California, Riverside, "From our studies, we can't necessarily say why or how fathers had a different experience of parenthood than mothers, but just that it appears that the parent-happiness link is stronger for fathers than for mothers. Past studies have indicated that much of fathers' time spent with children is in leisure or play, whereas mothers tend to be more responsible for the work aspects of parenthood. I'm not saying that this is always the case, and those roles may be shifting, but the association with play may be one possible reason for the stronger association between parenthood and happiness for men. Obviously, not all time spent with children can be playtime, but men and women alike may find solace in the fact that parenting can be associated with greater feelings of happiness and meaning."
Helen Partridge of Arlington, Virginia, is home all day with 10-month-old Charlotte. Her husband, James, only sees her at morning, at night before bed and on weekends. Instead of regarding this as a negative for the family, she sees the time Charlotte and James spend together as a plus for everyone: "It works out really well because those are the times that I am usually the most tired and in need of a break -- and less likely to be playing or teaching her. He definitely does things with her that I normally wouldn't do, namely along the lines of play. He is so interactive with her and definitely brings out her funny side. He is very inventive and more adventurous than I am. She learns a lot from him."
One size doesn't fit all
Of course families don't all look the same. Families where the father is the primary caregiver, blended or divorced families, single parents and same-sex parents are all growing parts of the populations. Every family is unique and every parent-child bond is different -- but fostering a bond, particularly between the kids and the parent who isn't the primary caregiver, is incredibly important to everyone involved.
"For divorced or blended families, it is really important that the child has a relationship with the other parent, even though it may be difficult for you," says Ludvig. "Allowing the child to have a relationship with both parents and having them work hard at not making the child take sides is essential to their well-being. As for families of same-sex couples or families where the father is the primary caregiver, recognize the strength each parent brings to the family and carve out special time with your kids to foster those bonds and grow them."
Parenthood isn't always fun, obviously.
"Look, sometimes it feels that kids can be hardwired to be pains-in-the-ass," admits Matlack. As children grow, those close knit bonds that fathers have in those early years can be tested. Teens and tweens may no longer think that Dad is the coolest guy and horsing around or reading together may seem babyish. Fathers can often retreat and that bond can feel strained at times, but it is important to be the grown-up and keep at it.
"The bad times really can strengthen a bond in a family. Being present and there for your kids is probably the single most important thing a father can do. Just being there counts for something sometimes," says Matlack.
Being present is a big part of parenting for all ages. Yelling at them to put the phone down and talk to you may not always yield the results you want. If your child always seems to be texting, maybe that's your in. Be funny in your messages to him or her even if it's about something mundane.
Show up when there is a game or a play. Take them out to dinner or ice cream afterwards alone. If something is important to your child, make it important to you.
"Parenthood is really a time to stretch yourself as a person and try and be your best self," says Ludwig. "There is always a way to get back into a child's life no matter what the age. Being there for an activity, being approachable and willing to talk. It takes effort but being there does help these bonds."