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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Fathers and Children: Understanding the Misunderstandings

Is it a good idea for parents to request a little feedback from a child on how they are doing in their parenthood roles? Should parents ask whether there is something more or something else the child needs from them?

The answer is yes, according to Jeff Cookston, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University. He shared a few of his research-based insights on parenting as Father’s Day 2013 approached.

Children often do not understand why parents say the things they say or why they do what they do. Most parents are well of that.

But what truly perplexes parents is the fact that children may not only fail to understand them, but actually misunderstand them. Children can misinterpret a parent’s words and actions, and attribute unintended motives to them.

These misunderstandings and misinterpretations can add up to a misperception of the parent on a child’s part. That concerns Cookston.

A study by Cookston and fellow researcher Andrea Finlay focused on fathers and the ways their behaviors are perceived by different adolescent children in different contexts. The study appeared in March in the Journal of Family Issues.

Making Sense of Dad

To explain how children view and interpret a parent’s behavior, the study mentions the father who buys an ice-cream treat for his child. One child might think the father does this simply because he is always such a nice guy, but another child might think the father is not typically so nice and perhaps only did this because he was having a good day.

On the other hand, if a father says something to a child that is upsetting, a child might interpret his words as those of a father who usually is kind, but had a bad day at work. However, the child might judge that his father’s upsetting comment was typical of him as a person.

Just to show how complicated it all can be, Cookston commented on the parent who strives not to be harsh with a child. “You may think that you’re being a good parent by not being harsh on your kid, for instance, but your child may view that as, ‘You’re not invested in me, you’re not trying,’” Cookston explained.

He believes that “kids are actively trying to make sense of the parenting they receive” and that this is an important consideration for parents. Past research of his has examined how children perceive and construct their relationships with their fathers.

“The meaning that children take from the parenting may be as important, or more important, than the behavior of the parents,” he said.

All of which helps to explain why Cookston advises fathers “to sometimes say to their kids: ‘How am I doing? Am I the dad you need me to be?’” He thinks fathers may be surprised by the “filters” children use to interpret parental words and actions.

Of course, the way an adolescent interprets a father’s behavior could influence the course of the relationship between them.

Cookston’s study has implications for counselors working with fathers and their teenage children. It suggests there is a “need to examine how to communicate messages to adolescents,” given the potential for misunderstanding or misinterpreting what is said.

Raised Bar

With the arrival of Father’s Day, Cookston shared a few more of his insights on fatherhood. Fathers fulfill vital roles ranging from role modeling to discipline in children’s lives, he observed. But he suggested it is all to the good when fathers accent their emotional relationship with a child. This can even influence the child’s behavior outside the home.

And someone who was not always a warm and accepting father can become one, Cookson insisted. He commented that “parents can change, and kids can accept that.”

Other researchers and commentators today note a desire on the part of contemporary fathers to spend more time with their children and to become more deeply connected with their children’s lives. Cookston agrees this is important.

“We need to raise the bar for fatherhood,” he suggested, adding that “if a man is around and is a good provider and doesn’t yell at his kids and goes to soccer games,” that may not be enough.

Cookston said, “We need to expect more in terms of engagement, involvement and quality interaction.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.