Why Kids Need Dads – The Science Of The ‘Father Effect’
Having a good father figure can make an enormous difference in one’s upbringing. Children whose fathers are actively involved in their lives are less likely to drop out of school, break the law, have risky sex, be homeless, rely on welfare, be obese, have psychological problems, get into unhealthy relationships, and be unemployed. (1, 2, 3, 4)
As Paul Amato, a sociologist at the Pennsylvania State University, explains, a father’s active involvement is crucial. (1) Yet, the study of fatherhood is still a relatively new and much less researched field than the research and literature on motherhood. There is, however, more and more research on how fathers can hurt and help their children. (5, 6) Some findings, like ugly divorces and abuse being damaging for children are well know. However, other findings, such as the correlation between a father’s presence and lack of aggression, may not be as obvious.
“The Father Effect” is real and serves as an umbrella term explaining the benefits of paternal presence. The key is that their presence is active. Simply being married to the mother, but being gone to work and social events all the time, or only watching TV together without much engagement doesn’t do much.
In our modern world, fathers are more and more involved. They are hands-on help during pregnancy, birth, and after. Attending birthing class with the mom, being there for the birth, changing diapers, and so on can make an enormous difference in the baby’s life.
The involvement of fathers at every stage is still a relatively new phenomenon. Even a few decades ago, it was not common for a father to attend the birth, deal with diapers, or play a major role in caring for a child. New research shows that these changes are exceptionally positive.
It Starts With A Sperm
Fathers are not sperm donors only; however, sperms are important. They pass important genetic information to the child. Since they can pass genetic diseases, genetic counseling before conceiving is crucial. (7)
According to epigenetics, one’s DNA can change through lifestyle choices, the environment, and other factors. The health of the mother’s eggs are important. However, the health of the sperm is equally as important. Both the mother and father’s nutritional, hormonal, and psychological environments make a difference in the cellular response, gene expression, organ structure, and healthy functioning of their biological child. (8)
The life of men before conception can also create a huge difference. Men who drink before conception are more likely to have children who abuse alcohol. (9) Poor dietary choices of men can lead to negative pregnancy outcomes, while stress can increase the risk of high blood sugar. (10, 11)
Great Fathers Are Incubated
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that fathers were ever encouraged to take part in parent groups, labor, and caring for the baby. Childcare, including pregnancy and birth, was the role of the mother. At the most, fathers were there to play catch, but had no involvement in pre-baby and baby things, such as feeding and caring.
Turns out that recent developments are positive. Fathers who are actively involved during birth develop stronger relationships and early attachment with the baby. (12, 13) Whether this leads to long-term attachment or not is under debate, however, research has shown that the fathers involvement during pregnancy, birth and soon after birth plays a critical role and can have long-term benefits. (14) Some researchers even argue that it is the best to allow mothers to go home right after birth to allow the entire family to be together, especially in hospitals where fathers cannot stay overnight. (15)
However, being involved during the early period is not enough. Involvement for the rest of a child’s development is crucial to raise healthy children into healthy adults.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Engaged Fathers
One may wonder what engaged involvement looks like. This, of course, may be different family to family, however, it is important to highlight the characteristics of engaged and active fathering.
Some fathers travel a lot or live far away for long periods of time. Physical interactions are limited. However, there are still options to stay engaged. Letters, phone calls, quality interaction even over Skype or phone, and quality time when physically together are all important. Financial support and providing for children goes a long way as well. Fathers who are far away, but are engaged through creative means and support make a more positive impact than fathers who are around, spend time with their children, but are insulting, dismissive, or abusive. The quality of the interaction and care is what matters.
When fathers are living in the same household or in close proximity, and don’t have to travel frequently either, are at an advantage as far as involvement goes. However, quality is still the rule of thumb.
Why Your Infant And Toddler Need A Father
Toddlers are still small and growing. They don’t understand everything. They may not understand why their father has to travel for work. Their world is about new discoveries, puppies, and yummy snacks. Yet paternal involvement is not to be dismissed at that time. (16) Infants and toddlers who play with their fathers have higher cognitive and behavioral outcomes. (17, 18, 19, 20) Being involved in everyday tasks and activities, such as dinner and playing in the backyard can make a positive difference. (21) Some activities may also be better suited for fathers than mothers. (22)
On the other hand, fathers who grow up without fathers or have disengaged fathers are less likely to be popular at preschool. Ugly divorces can lead to future health problems in children as well. (23)
Boys particularly learn important social skills from their fathers. However, daughters also need their fathers just as much. (24)
Why Your Daughter Needs A Father
By the time puberty hits, the effect of a father’s involvement is equally important in boys and girls. When fathers are involved, both boys and girls may outperform their peers and have more confidence. As teens, they are less likely to take sexual risks. However, uninvolved fathers and broken homes can increase the risk of unrestricted and risky sexual behavior, especially in daughters. (25) A warm and engaged father plays a protective role and protects their children from promiscuous sex, whereas disengagement and lack of monitoring can lead to the opposite. An involved father also acts as a positive male role model for both children.
What Happens When The Father Disappears
A father’s involvement is not always possible. Some children lose their father to death or incarceration. For research purposes, these cases are easier to study than situations where fathers simply abandon their children and families.
The incarceration of the father can seriously harm children. Fathers who are incarcerated or otherwise away have little ability, and in some cases, intentions, to make a positive impact on their children. (26, 27)
It is not about the distance, but the involvement and intention, or in other words, what the fathers do. For example, when fathers live far away – for example, they are in the military, move for a job, or live far away after a divorce – as long as they provide, show care, keep in contact, and spend quality time when possible, can make a positive impact on their children. However, when a father is incarcerated, they can do very little, and children also suffer from stigma and stress. Fathers who have died have clearly no way to be involved personally, only the family can keep the memory alive. Fathers who disappear after an ugly divorce or break-up and show no intention to be engaged in their lives can also lead to a negative impact in their children’s development.
It seems that engaged, quality involvement is what’s important to be a good father rather than the proximity or life situation.
How To Be A Good Father
Fatherhood is complex. There is a lot that goes into being a good father.
Looking at it from the genetic perspective, it is crucial to live a healthy life and ensure to pass down the healthiest genetic make-up possible. During pregnancy and birth, it is essential for a father to stay involved. During infancy and the toddler period, active play-time is important along with physically caring (eg. diaper changes, bathing. etc.) for the child alongside the mother.
From a more general perspective, parenting well is what’s important: truly caring for the child both physically and emotionally, and being a good role model. Children are always watching. Modeling good behavior is essential to a child’s cognitive, psychological, and social development.
Fathers and mothers are the best and the most important teachers. They can teach their children about life in general, relationships, social skills, developing healthy habits, happiness, family dynamics, mortality, and more. Parents not only teach through words. What they teach by modeling their actions is much more important. What they model to their children can steer them toward becoming a healthy and happy adult.
I hope you’ve found this article helpful about the importance of the “Father Effect.” I would love to hear your thoughts about this article, your view on the role of fathers, and your personal experiences being a father, parenting together with a father, or having a father. Feel free to share your experiences, thoughts, and questions in the comments.