Paternity leave, like universal preschool, has enjoyed new attention in recent months. Although giving fathers, like mothers, the right to take a few paid weeks off work after the birth of a child has the potential for wide support—what mom wouldn’t appreciate a bit more help caring for a newborn?—the typical arguments for paternity leave are bound to have less than universal appeal.
For example, take this argument in The Atlantic by Liza Mundy:
While paid paternity leave may feel like an unexpected gift, the biggest beneficiaries aren’t men, or even babies. In the long run, the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women, and the companies and nations that benefit when women advance. In October, the World Economic Forum released its latest global gender-gap report, showing that countries with the strongest economies are those that have found ways to further women’s careers, close the gender pay gap, and keep women—who in most nations are now better educated than men—tethered to the workforce after they become mothers. One strikingly effective strategy used by the highest-ranking countries is paternity leave, which, whatever else it may accomplish, is a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.
How would that argument sound to a woman who wants to stay home full-time with her young children, or to a man who takes pride in being his family’s primary breadwinner? It may seem like a threat or a bit of an insult: Paternity leave is good because it keeps women “tethered to the workforce” and overturns traditional gender roles!
If they hope to appeal to skeptics and to Americans with more conservative views on parents’ roles, proponents of paternity leave should place less emphasis on its gender-role implications and more emphasis on the ways that babies and children stand to benefit from it. Here’s how such an argument could run.
Allowing new fathers time at home doesn’t only help mothers to cope with the stresses of having an infant—it can also promote a closer relationship between the father and the baby. That early close relationship has long-term implications: “early bonding between father and child is strongly associated with a father’s later desire to want to maintain contact with that child,” David Popenoe writes in his classic work Families Without Fathers.
And the long-term, day-to-day involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, which can begin with paternity leave, has a major influence on children’s life outcomes. To quote Popenoe again, “father involvement is related to [children’s] improved quantitative and verbal skills, improved problem solving ability, and enhanced academic achievement.”
Dads also affect kids’ psychological well-being into adulthood. In one study, sociologist Paul Amato examined how both closeness to mothers and closeness to fathers affected older children and young adults. On three out of four measures of psychological well-being—happiness, life satisfaction, and psychological distress—“closeness to fathers yielded significant associations independently of closeness to mothers.”
Fathers matter for the development of good character, too: researchers who ran one 26-year study on how parental behavior in early childhood is related to empathy and compassion in adults found, to the researchers’ astonishment, that the single most important childhood factor for developing empathy was fathers’ involvement in basic child care.
Just about all parents hope for their kids to become happy, academically successful, and empathetic adults. By basing an argument for paternity leave and dads’ greater involvement in child-rearing on these hopes, rather than on their own desire for perfect gender equality, proponents of paternity leave can build a wider coalition in support of their cause.