In the developmental psychology literature, an overwhelming amount of attention has been lavished on searching for correlative and causal links between children and their mothers. This can be attributed to various reasons, which are not mutually exclusive: 1) reflection of a biological reality that infants are more dependent on mothers than fathers for care and nourishment; 2) evidence of a cultural bias that assumes that only mothers are intimately involved in infant care; 3) the fact that when researchers do look for the father’s role in early infant development, they don’t often don’t find anything.
So it is no everyday feat that a new study from the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has demonstrated a link between father-infant interactions at 3 months and infant behavioral problems at 12 months — namely, more positive interactions predicted fewer behavioral problems. This is an exciting finding in a field where fathers are often relegated to a lower tier of importance. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that this is a correlative study, and as such no causal attribution can be made. The authors acknowledge this, though their preferred inference is that paternal interactions contributed to causing the child’s future behavior. This may very well be, but the study design prohibits us from making such a leap. (Alternatively, we could postulate that fathers find it difficult to engage with temperamentally difficult babies. Or perhaps another, unknown variable contributed to both paternal engagement and infant behavior.) The temptation to violate the “correlation is not causation” rule can be great in these situations where a fairly novel discovery has been made. Often it is left up to the reader to stay vigilant and draw his or her own conclusions.
Do early father-infant interactions predict the onset of externalising behaviours in young children? Findings from a longitudinal cohort study [Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry via Wellcome Trust]