It is hard to ignore the ubiquitous reminders that Sunday, 16th June, is Father's Day in many countries. As with most annually celebrated events, Father's Day is engulfed in a wave of commercialisation that threatens to obscure its true significance. Although it is undoubtedly important to recognise the role of fathers, perhaps the day should be less about celebrating and more about ensuring that we really understand the vital role fathers play in children's lives. After all, research shows that engaged fathers have a positive influence on their children. Educational success, better social development, and higher self-esteem are some of the documented effects on children who have dads involved in their everyday life.
Understanding this, policymakers have tried to increase the involvement of fathers by adapting leave policies after childbirth. As illustrated in the country profiles on the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC), many EU countries have implemented parental leave policies that allow both mother and father to take time off from work to look after children. Despite policy changes, however, mothers still take advantage of parental leave more than fathers. This is unfortunate. Examples from countries in which fathers have dedicated time off show that the policy can bring about positive results. For instance, Sweden's policy of granting parents up to 14 months of shared leave, plus an additional two months of reserved leave each, has led to a significantly higher number of men using parental benefit days and, surprisingly, higher fertility rates.
Paternity leave is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. In 2012, RAND Europe published the 'Parenting Support Policy Brief', which highlighted the fact that most parents need — and want — support. The brief documented efforts by EU member states to offer services aimed at enhancing parenting skills and practices in order to address children's physical, emotional and social needs. These efforts now need to be targeted at the specific challenges faced by fathers.
The “Father/Male Involvement Preschool Teacher Education Programme” from Promising Practices Network provides a helpful example of how fathers can maintain regular involvement with their children through school activities. “Fathers' Story Week” featured on the EPIC website is a similar effort. Established by the Fatherhood Institute in the UK, the programme celebrates the power of fathers reading with their children. Policymakers have created opportunities for involvement through paternal leave — they now need to invest in supporting fathers to fully realise those opportunities.
Finally, it is worth noting that policymakers can only partially address the issue. There also needs to be a cultural shift in attitudes towards working mothers, as this is the corollary of a greater acceptance of the need for the father's involvement at all stages of a child's upbringing. Results from the 2012 European Parliament Eurobarometer Flash (PDF) survey indicate that the unequal sharing of responsibilities and tasks between women and men in families and the persistence of sexist stereotypes still rank relatively low in comparison to other gender inequality issues seen as important by respondents. Perhaps Father's Day can serve as a time for reflection on the underlying social barriers that prevent fathers from being more fully involved.
Barbara Janta is an analyst in the Education, Employment and Social Policy team at RAND Europe. Her research interests include employment, migration, ageing and family policy in Europe.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.