The pandemic held few benefits for families across the country – but Lockdown Dads were a significant and welcome development. Fathers during Covid-19 doubled the time they spent in childcare from 2014. 78 per cent of dads reported spending more time with their children and 65 per cent reported a better relationship with their children, according to the Fatherhood Institute.
This is good news. We know that a father who engages with their child(ren) is less likely to separate from the mother. Their baby will show greater cognitive development at five months, as a toddler they will have better problem-solving skills, and by age three they have on average a higher IQ score than children without a present father.
But not all children benefit from a responsible father, who engages with them: across the UK 2.7 million children have no father figure at home, representing almost one in five of all dependent children, the CSJ calculated in its 2018 report, Testing Times. In the black Caribbean community, according to findings published by the Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission last year, the percentage of children raised in fatherless households is an astounding 63 per cent.
Governments, traditionally, have been reluctant to address this issue, arguing that the way in which individuals arrange their family lives is a personal choice without wider consequence. Our research challenges this, however. From our landmark report, Breakdown Britain (2007), successive CSJ reports have highlighted that certain family structures – notably the involvement of both parents – produce better outcomes for children. And, in fact, many families have in reality very little choice in how they balance work and family commitments.
For instance, around two-thirds of mothers want the father of their child to be present when they attend ante natal appointments and during childbirth. Yet one third of low-income dads did not or could not attend ante natal appointments because their employers made no allowance for them to do so. Most dads would like to feel they are part of the pregnancy process – yet told the CSJ that they are made to feel “like a spare part” by health visitors, midwives and even the NHS literature surrounding a baby’s birth.
Can policy change the gap between a father’s role as parents would ideally like it and the present reality?
We agree with Gareth Davies MP that it can and, indeed, that it must.
In this CSJ Discussion Paper, Gareth Davies argues that government can take on a crucial role in changing our paternity leave system. At present the paternity offer is inadequate, he argues; take-up last year was as low as just 170,000 fathers – a quarter of new fathers in employment. Instead of enabling new fathers to participate fully in their child’s first 1,001 days – a period which neuroscience tells us is key for their cognitive development – too many employers hinder this important relationship by adhering to inflexible schedules and budgets. Keeping fathers from fulfilling their responsibility as a parent strikes us as a short-sighted practice, bad for staff morale and ultimately productivity. As this Discussions paper outlines, there is growing evidence that the opposite is true: those who encourage good family-work balance reap benefits in terms of staff recruitment and retention, as well as increased profits.
A series of CSJ Family Policy Unit reports have shed light on the importance of strengthening families. Failure to do so risks parents’ and children’s outcomes, but also affects society more widely, including in the form of anti-social behaviour and the expensive interventions this requires. Through our Discussions series, we are pleased to give a platform to this important paper.
A responsible father should not be a lucky add-on in a child’s life; he should be an engaged, nurturing and constant presence. Improving the paternity leave system is a critical first step in ensuring this.