June 17, 2011 -- Dads play roughhousing with their young children is crucially important in the early development of kids, according to a study by Australian researchers. As Father's Day approaches, maybe the best gift is simply for kids to play with their dads.
"We know quite a lot about how important fathers are in general for a child's development. Over the last decade, for example, that it's mainly mother that interacts with children and that's how they develop, and that's the important bit, that's changed. We know fathers are important," Richard Fletcher, the leader of the Fathers and Families Research Program at the University of Newcastle in Australia, told ABC News.
"Father's Day reminds us parents that we have no more solemn obligation than to care for our children," President Barack Obama said Wednesday in calling for fathers to be more involved with their children. "But far too many young people in America grow up without their dads, and our families and communities are challenged as a result." Sunday is Father's Day.
The percentage of fathers who live seperately from their children has doubled in the past 50 years, but dads also tend to spend more than twice the amount of time with their children than they did in the 1960's, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.
Australian researchers watched film of 30 dads while they roughhoused with their children, usually through a game where the child would try to remove a sock from their father's foot, to see what effect it might have on children.
"Rough and tumble play between fathers and their young children is part of their development, shaping their children's brain so that their children develop the ability to manage emotions and thinking and physical action altogether," said Fletcher. "This is a key developmental stage for children in that preschool area between the ages of about two and a half and five. That's when children learn to put all those things together."
Although boys were more likely to encourage the start of roughhousing with their dads, researchers did not see a significant difference between boys and girls once the play started. But for the kids, it's not just play.
"When you look at fathers and their young children playing, you can see that for the child, it's not just a game. They obviously enjoy it and they're giggling, we know that's true, but when you watch the video, you can see that child is concentrating really hard … I think the excitement is related to the achievement that's involved," Fletcher told ABC News. "It's not about a spoiled child not wanting to lose, I think that child is really striving for the achievement of succeeding."
The researchers believe that the most important aspect of this play is that it gives children a sense of achievement when they 'defeat' a more powerful adult, building their self-confidence and concentration. However, fathers who resist their children, can also teach them the life lesson that, in life, you don't always win. The act of a stronger adult holding back that strength also helps to build trust between father and child.
These kinds of lessons can be crucial in child developmental stages as they begin to build their outlook on the world. "We think it has implications for children's resilience. So, if parents want their children to grow up and not get into drugs and not get into trouble, if they want them to do well academically, than this is probably a good thing to do," said Fletcher. "We did find a correlation so that the dad's whose play was much better coordinated according to our measures, those children had less problems."
Fletcher admits that more research needs to be done, but he is hopeful that his team will eventually be able to help fathers know how to best interact with their child in their formative periods to ensure them a successful future. "It's a new area, but we're excited about the possibilities," said Fletcher.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.