One eye on your three-year-old and another on the football game isn’t exactly textbook parenting. But take heart, inattentive dads: new research suggests you may be giving your kid a leg up. A study led by researchers at the Université de Montreal found that fathers, more so than mothers, tend to give toddlers the leeway to take risks and explore, and that equips youngsters for the challenges of life that lie ahead. “The less protective the parent, the more exploratory the behaviour in the child,” says Daniel Paquette, a psychology professor at the university. “For a child to become self-confident, the parent mustn’t be too far or too close.”
The study is part of an emerging line of inquiry called “activation theory,” which stresses the importance of risk-taking and competition in early childhood development. It’s the flip side of 20th-century “attachment theory,” which focused exclusively on nurturing the belief that primary caregivers fulfill a child’s emotional needs and guarantee survival. To test their hypothesis, Paquette and his colleagues, whose study appears in the current issue of Early Child Development and Care, placed kids aged 12 to 18 months, each with a parent, in risky situations—near toys at the top of a stairway, say, or in a room where a strange adult enters. They then measured the responses of both parent and child, and found fathers were more likely to give the child space to take risks. More importantly, they identified a link between this arm’s-length style of parenting and the intrepidness of the kids.
That doesn’t mean men should take a nap when on daddy duty. No one’s interests are served when a child falls down the stairs. But it does suggest hidden virtue in hands-off child-rearing—and a little less guilt when the big game demands a fellow’s attention.