Dads Matter Too: Fatherhood and Child Development from An Attachment Framework

Nour Yaktine
· 7 min read

Attachment theory and research both suggest that fathers play a crucial role in child development

When Bowlby first conceptualized attachment theory, he used the term ‘caregiver’, suggesting that children can be raised by their mother, their father (either biological or not), or another attachment figure such as a grandparent, an uncle, an aunt, a sibling, a family friend, a nanny or any other person. Taking into consideration that attachment theory was developed in the 1950s, this was a revolutionary term that indirectly addressed the issue of parenting roles at a time when mothers were considered caretakers and homemakers, and fathers were seen as the breadwinners. It is only later in his career that Bowlby began explicitly discussing the role of fathers in his research. For instance, in the 1980s, Bowlby began reflecting on father absence, precisely discussing the effect of losing one’s father on boys.

After Bowlby’s death, his son Richard Bowlby took on his work and began conducting his own research on fatherhood. His observations led him to the realization that fathers serve as attachment figures too and that a father-child interaction has considerable positive effects on child development. While this piece of information can seem very familiar to us today, it was quite a revelation at the time. Indeed, before Richard Bowlby began researching the role of fathers, attachment roles were understood in relation to gender roles. To illustrate, mothers were thought to provide a secure base; the rather emotional aspect of child development, while interactions with fathers were limited to the behavioral aspect and fathers were thought to solely be involved in exciting and challenging play. Of course, Richard Bowlby challenged this view, arguing that both mothers and fathers have an equally significant parental function. Interestingly, he came to this realization while watching his own son and grandson interacting, as he noticed the positive effect of a father reading to his (grand)son and spending quality time with him.

Richard Bowlby’s observations led him to conclude that both mothers and fathers serve as primary attachment figures and the quality of the relationship remains the same, regardless of parenting roles. Indeed, both mothers and fathers have been shown to be able to provide their children with what is called a “secure base,” a sense of security and comfort which makes the child feel confident and willing to explore the environment. This reinforces the idea that parenting roles are not necessarily gender specific. In line with this, his studies have consistently shown that father sensitivity and involvement contribute to healthier child development. On the other hand, emotionally uninvolved fathers and fathers who are absent due to separation or loss have been shown to contribute to maladaptive affective and behavioral patterns in children. Therefore, fathers should be viewed and considered as primary attachment figures, and cultures should reevaluate the importance of the physical and emotional presence of a father on a child’s socioemotional development.

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In an interview conducted with Richard Bowlby, he discusses the influence of culture on fatherhood and attachment. According to him, the dual attachment model (in which both mothers and fathers are considered as primary caregivers) applies mostly in Western cultures, less so in Middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures. According to him, in individualistic societies such as in the West, fathers who typically engage in one-on-one activities with their child, such as through tumble play, would be emotionally preparing them for their adult life by indirectly teaching them how to trust a boss or a colleague. This, of course, can be achieved when fathers serve as a secure base. On the other hand, collectivistic societies adopt different practices. In these societies, people naturally function in groups but are still expected to be independent in their adult life. In Lebanon for example, it is not uncommon for children to be raised by not only their parents and grandparents, but also their neighbors and their family friends. While having this kind of social support is extremely beneficial, it should not replace the one-on-one quality time between a father and his child. Since fathers are considered as primary attachment figures, it becomes our responsibility to actively reinforce this idea and push for more father-child interactions.


Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1969).

Newland, L. A., & Coyl, D. D. (2009). Fathers’ role as attachment figures: an interview with Sir Richard Bowlby. Early Child Development and Care, 180(1-2), 25-32. DOI: 10.1080/03004430903414679