By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT
Many parents want to have compassionate children, kids who have the ability to care for others, to listen to other people and help them feel better. We teach them about manners, we teach them how to share. We model how to be good people, how to care for others. But it might amaze you to learn that a study spanning 26 years has found that the single most important factor in developing empathy in children is the involvement of their father.
The study by Koestner, Franz, and Weinberger published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that fathers who spent time alone with their children handling all childcare issues like changing diapers, feeding, putting them to bed, etc. for at least two days a week raised children who went on to become the most compassionate adults.
That’s pretty incredible!
We fathers have an instrumental role to play when it comes to helping our children develop an understanding and awareness of the people around them, the ability to think of other people and care for them. These are vital skills for developing healthy relationships that will help our children for the rest of their lives. Can you imagine a good marriage without compassion? Can you imagine being a good parent without compassion, without empathy?
This ties in nicely with something I believe very strongly. Fathers, to develop strong healthy relationships with their children, need to “take over” parenting tasks such as feeding, changing diapers, getting kids dressed and most importantly putting them to bed. Often these are tasks that the mother does alone and in better situations they are something that the couple does together. But for a father to develop a very strong relationship with their children, his children need to see him take care of them by himself. He needs to consistently have days or times where only he feeds them, where he only changes them or gets them dressed or takes them out and where he only puts them to bed.
I think putting your children to bed is probably the most powerful in terms of impact because going to sleep engenders such issues for children. Fear of the dark and separation anxiety are just two examples of the struggles children have with going to sleep. Putting children to bed gives children a chance to see Daddy can take care of them just as well as Mommy can. I also have found that it is very valuable to be the one who takes care of them when they wake up in the middle of the night. Again, if you can show your children that when they need you, you can be there for them, you will be able to develop an even stronger relationship with them. For fathers whose partners may be unwilling to give up putting your children to bed, you can try to work out a compromise where you alternate nights or set a schedule of Mon-Wed for one and Thurs-Sun for the other. If you each do it individually then the parent who isn’t putting the kids to bed will get some down time without children or spouse, which can be very nice.
Not only does putting your children to bed give you a chance to be there for them when they need you, it also gives you incredibly special, intimate time with them. Time that, according to studies like this one, allow your children to develop a very strong, healthy sense of compassion and empathy so that they can experience the kind of relationships with others that you helped to create with them.