Many dads feel that being a father is the most challenging job, but also the most rewarding. In the earliest days and weeks of parenthood, however, men often compare themselves to the mother of their child and fear that they matter less and their impact is less significant. On the contrary, a father's influence on his child's life is crucial.

From the moment a child is born, a father's willingness to be present and involved makes an appreciable difference in his child's development. A collection of studies examined by researchers at the University of Guelph found that infants of fathers who frequently participated in play and caregiving activities are more cognitively competent at six months and score higher on the Bayley Scales of Infant Development. The children of highly involved fathers continue to have higher cognitive functioning at one years old, are better problem solvers as toddlers, and already have higher IQs by age three.

So it seems fathers matter a great deal. leading to questions about exactly why they make a difference. One study examined the specifics of father-child interaction, in particular, focusing on the ways in which fathers communicate differently than mothers. The study's researchers videotaped 33 father-child and mother-child pairs during semi-structured free play at home. Interestingly, the fathers' and mothers' way of speaking with their children did not differ in amount, diversity of vocabulary, or linguistic complexity. However, the fathers produced more 'wh' questions (such as, 'what,' 'where,' 'who,' etc.) as well as explicitly requested clarification. Not only do such questions present more conversational challenges to children, they also require children to assume more responsibility in their interactions. When playing with their fathers, then, toddlers not only talked more and used more diverse vocabulary, they also produced longer utterances.

What is equally interesting to note is that the positive impact is not just a one-way street.

Fathers & Sons

Various studies give overwhelming support to the idea that high-frequency interactions with children provide substantial benefits to the fathers themselves. Researchers find that fathers who attend to their children are more satisfied with their own lives; they also work more hours and earn more than those who are less involved with their children. Overtime, then, a father may experience firsthand the benefits of actively raising his children, and he should not be surprised when his influence is felt more by his son than his daughter. A study conducted in 2006 found that a father's support was positively related to adolescent boys' academic motivation to try hard in school and place a high value on education. The same was not true in the case of daughters, who responded more to support given by their mothers.

Clearly, fathers have a unique chance to be influential in their son's lives. The following tips, culled from fathers as well as scholars, might guide those less confident dads toward better interactions with their sons.

Remember your son is a child and communicate on the same level. A newborn infant cannot express his hunger in words, so he cries. Similarly, an adolescent boy (or even a college-aged son) may not know where to begin articulating strong and confusing feelings. A basic understanding of child development, which may also prevent unrealistic expectations, is required before talking to your son. When he's young, you might need to physically come down to his level (bend down so that he can see you face-to-face) and use words a child can understand. For older boys, this means remembering how you felt at his age.

Read stories to him when he is young. Reading is affection. Reading is sitting side by side. Reading is conversation and discussion.

Pay attention to non-verbal messages. Sons communicate very strong messages through nonverbal behavior. Posture, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice all tell you, nonverbally, what he is feeling. You need to interpret nonverbal behavior and to ask for clarification when you do not understand your son. At the same time, be aware of the impact of your own non-verbal messages; an angry glance may have the same impact as a harsh word.

Bring him along and don't do chores alone. Repairs, projects, recurring maintenance, and gardening are opportunities to bond with your son. Give him a role to play appropriate to his age, and guide him through the challenges with instruction and encouragement. Find something that he can do to help you, even if he is only fetching tools. Routine trips to the store, whether you travel by foot or car, are opportunities for conversations with your son. It's also important for a son to observe his father in the world.

Talk to your son about anything and everything. Just talk. Tell him what you're doing or what you feel like eating for lunch. If you worry something is on his mind, ask him about it. Many people believe that children learn the facts of life by the time they are ten years old. Do you want to be the one who imparts this knowledge or do you want the Internet to do it?

Communicate clearly and directly. Effective father-son communication begins with you speaking clearly and directly. Children are more likely to develop solid communication skills if their fathers model and encourage clarity.

Correct your son calmly and explain your reasons. It is important to be firm and consistent. Use the opportunity that problems and mistakes provide to get at the causes of behavior. This is an important way to help your son develop his character and personality.

Listen actively. When listening to a son, pay close attention to both his verbal and nonverbal messages. Acknowledge and respect his point of view. Nod your head or say, "I understand." And when in doubt, ask him directly, "What did you mean when you said...?" or "Help me understand what you are saying."

In the end, simply wanting to communicate is the biggest part of being an involved parent. Happy Father's Day!

Source: Allen S, Daly K. The Effects of Father Involvement: An Updated Research Summary of the Evidence Inventory. Centre for Families, Work & Well-Being. 2007.