Dad’s task: Draw a sailboat with an Etch A Sketch in five minutes or less.
The twist (pun intended): Sketch the sailboat with your 6-year-old child controlling one of the toy’s two dials.
While it sounds like playtime, it’s really an extensive experiment on the relationship quality between fathers and children. Social scientists observed almost 600 dads in 10 cities attempt the joint sketch with their first graders.
But instead of awarding points for artistic quality, the researchers judged how well the pair worked with each other in a battery of team-play exercises including the Etch A Sketch challenge.
“By design, these tasks are too hard for first-graders to do on their own,” said Erin Holmes, a professor in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. “When a little conflict or stress occurred, we looked at dads’ ability to respond to their children’s feelings – negative or positive.”
The main conclusion of Holmes’ study? Children who had the best experience can thank their father’s child-centered parenting beliefs, which a statistical analysis showed to be among the most predictive factors of quality relationships. Child-centered parenting includes beliefs such as “Children learn best by doing things themselves” and “A child’s ideas should be seriously considered when making family decisions.”
More telling were factors that didn’t seem to matter: fathers’ income level, education, even the number of diapers they changed.* While these attributes have merit in other contexts, they didn’t influence fathers’ ability to engage their children in productive and positive ways.
Holmes is the lead author of the new study to be published by the academic journal Fathering. Aletha Huston of the University of Texas at Austin is a co-author.
The fathers who did not fare so well in the experiments hold more adult-centered parenting beliefs. These attitudes were measured by a questionnaire asking how strongly they agree with statements like “Preparing for the future is more important for a child than enjoying today” and “Children should be doing something useful at all times.”
If adult-centered fathers perceived their child to possess strong social skills, however, the pair scored well on relationship quality in the playtime experiment.
Being a child-centered father doesn’t mean giving up notions of obedience and accountability, Holmes notes.
“Even though teaching your child to be obedient is an important part of parenting, you need to be willing to listen to your child, too,” Holmes said. “When parents pay attention to their children’s cues about how children feel and what they like to do, it produces better quality relationships.”
The data for this study come from a 15-year longitudinal study funded by The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
* Though not addressed by this particular study, avoiding diaper duty is suspected to impact dad’s relationship with mom.