A father's love is at least as important, and sometimes more important, to a child’s emotional development as a mother’s, a large-scale study has confirmed.
And the belief that children only need the love of their mothers is “fundamentally wrong”, Professor Ronald Rohner, the study's lead author, says.
Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust, said: ‘This study underlines the importance of intact and stable families where both the father and the mother are committed to bringing up their children together.
‘Successive governments have failed to recognise the fact that men and women are different and that they parent differently.’
He criticised ministers for ‘pretending that one parent is as good as two, or that two parents of the same sex are as good as two natural parents of the opposite sex’.
The findings come from interviews with more than 10,000 sons and daughters in 36 different studies.
Professor Rohner, of the University of Connecticut, said that fatherly love is key to development and hopes his findings will motivate more men to become involved in caring for their offspring.
‘In the US, Great Britain and Europe, we have assumed for the past 300 years that all children need for normal healthy development is a loving relationship with their mother,’ he said.
‘And that dads are there as support for the mother and to support the family financially but are not required for the healthy development of the children.
‘But that belief is fundamentally wrong. We have to start getting away from that idea and realise the dad’s influence is as great, and sometimes greater, than the mother’s.’
His conclusions came after he examined data from studies in which children and adults were asked how loving their parents were.
Questions included if they were made to feel wanted or needed, if their parents went out of their way to hurt their feelings and if they felt loved.
Those taking part also answered questions about their personality. These ranged from ‘I think about fighting or being mean’ to ‘I think the world is a good, happy place’.
Tallying the results showed that those rejected in childhood felt more anxious and insecure as well as hostile and aggressive.
Many of the problems carried over into adulthood, reported the study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.
One reason a father’s love can be more important is that rejection may be more painful when it comes from the parent the child regards as more powerful or respected.
Professor Rohner, of the University of Connecticut, US, said rejection in childhood has the most ‘strong and consistent effect on personality and development’.
He added: ‘Children and adults everywhere – regardless of race, culture, and gender – tend to respond in exactly the same way when they perceived themselves to be rejected.’
Professor Rohner said that children who feel unloved tend to become anxious and insecure, and this can make them needy. Anger and resentment can lead to them closing themselves off emotionally in an attempt to protect themselves from further hurt.
This may make it hard for them to form relationships. They can suffer from low self-esteem and find it difficult to handle stressful situations.
Professor Rohner added that research shows the same parts of the brain are activated when people feel rejected as when they suffer physical pain.
He added: ‘Unlike physical pain, however, people can psychologically relive the emotional pain of rejection over and over for years.’
His research shows a father’s input is particularly important for behaviour and can influence if a child later drinks to excess, takes drugs or suffers mental health problems.
When it comes to the impact of a father's love versus that of a mother, results from more than 500 studies suggest that while children and adults often experience more or less the same level of acceptance or rejection from each parent, the influence of one parent's rejection “oftentimes the father's” can be much greater than the other's.
A 13-nation team of psychologists working on the International Father Acceptance Rejection Project has developed at least one explanation for this difference: that children and young adults are likely to pay more attention to whichever parent they perceive to have higher interpersonal power or prestige.
So if a child perceives her father as having higher prestige, he may be more influential in her life than the child's mother. Work is ongoing to better understand this potential relationship.