Children perform better at school if their fathers are happy about the time they spend with them, but no similar effect found for mothers

Young children perform better at school if their fathers feel they spend sufficient time in play with them, but there is no similar effect for mothers, new research says.

The odds of children reaching a good level of emotional and intellectual development at age five were reduced by 18% if the father said he spent ‘nowhere near enough time’ with them.

The analysis by University of Leeds researchers found that while the time fathers spent drawing, painting, playing games or reading with their children was significant for children’s progress at school, mothers’ opinion about whether they spent enough play time had no link with their progress.

The research was carried out by Dr Helen Norman and Dr Rose Smith, of Leeds University Business School, using Millennium Cohort Study data on children born in 2000-01 in 4,966 two-parent households in England. The project is run in collaboration with Dr Jeremy Davies at the Fatherhood Institute.

Dr Norman told the British Sociological Association’s online annual conference today [Thursday 21 April 2022]: “We found that a higher proportion of children reached a good level of overall achievement in the Early years foundation stage profile when fathers engaged regularly in childcare activities such as drawing and painting, playing games and reading with their children.

“Mothers are more likely to say that the time they spend with their children is enough or more than enough, which reflects the fact that mothers tend to be the ones spending the most time doing childcare so not having enough time with children is less likely to be an issue. This is reflected in our sample where only 5% of mothers said they had ‘nowhere near enough time’ with their five-year old compared to 18% of fathers.”

The survey data found that 18% of fathers felt the time they spent with their five-year-old was ‘nowhere near enough’; and another 41% felt their time together was ‘not quite enough’.

The link between children’s development and the time fathers’ said they spent with them was the case even when the data was adjusted to rule other factors that might affect the child’s attainment, such as their gender, ethnicity, household income and parents’ employment status.

Mothers were more likely than fathers to say they spent enough time with their children at age five, but their feelings about time spent in play had no effect on their children’s progress.

Overall, the study found that 62% of girls reached a good level of achievement, and 47% of boys did so, while 39% of children from poorer households reached a good level of achievement, compared with 58% of children from more affluent households.
Dr Norman said the study had filled a gap in research: “Early parental childcare involvement is critical for supporting children’s development, but this is a conclusion drawn largely from research conducted with mothers or parents more generally.
“Fathers’ childcare involvement should have a positive effect on children’s development, yet there has been little empirical evidence to support this before our study.”

  • The Early years foundation stage profile is a set of 13 assessment scales including disposition and attitudes, emotional development, reading, writing, and knowledge and understanding about the world. The Department for Education defines a good level of achievement as a score of 78 out of 117 points, but this must include a score of six or more in each individual scale: personal; social and emotional development and communication; language and literacy.


The British Sociological Association’s annual conference takes place online from 20 to 22 April 2022. Around 500 research papers are presented. The British Sociological Association’s charitable aim is to promote sociology. It is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235

For more information, please contact:
Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392