The research provides some of the most conclusive evidence to date of fathers' importance to children's outcomes and reinforces the idea that early childhood programmes should focus on the whole family, including mothers and fathers alike.

"There is this whole idea that grew out of past researchthat dads really do not have direct effects on their kids, that they just kind of create the tone for the household and that moms are the ones who affect their children's development," said Claire Vallotton from Michigan State University in the US.

"But here we show that fathers really do have a direct effect on kids, both in the short-term and long-term," said Vallotton.

Researchers found that fathers play a surprisingly large role in their children's development, from language and cognitive growth in toddlerhood to social skills in fifth grade.

Using data from about 730 families, researchers studied the effects of parents' stress and mental health problems such as depression on their children. Parental stress and mental health issues affect how parents interact with their children and, subsequently, childhood development.

The study found that fathers' parenting-related stress had a harmful effect on their children's cognitive and language development when the children were two to three years old, even when the mothers' influences were taken into
account.

This impact varied by gender; fathers' influence, for example, had a larger effect on boys' language than girls' language, researchers said.

Another key finding was that fathers' and mothers' mental health had a similarly significant effect on behaviour problems among toddlers, they said. Fathers' mental health had a long-term impact, leading to differences in children's social skills (such as self-control and cooperation) when the children reached fifth grade.

In fact, fathers' depression symptoms when children were toddlers were more influential on children's later social skills than were mothers' symptoms, researchers said.

"A lot of family-risk agencies are trying to get the dad more involved, but these are some of the things they could be missing," said Tamesha Harewood from Michigan State. The findings were published in the journals Early Childhood Research Quarterly and Infant and Child Development.

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