As scientists have developed a clearer understanding of how fathers affect their children’s lives, they have found that early childhood engagement with male caretakers can have an outsized effect. But unpacking the effects of different elements of the so-called “Father Effect” – physical contact, nurturing, reassurance – remains difficult. Specifically, researchers have struggled to understand how paternal and maternal discipline differ, though a sparse but growing body of research suggests that they do, and in an unpredictable way. The limited current data set seems to indicate that young children are more immediately influenced by their mothers, but that as they grow older, their father’s disciplinary practices are correlated with their social and sexual behavior. But just because that may have been true in the past doesn’t mean that it always will be.
Tracking the downstream effects of paternal discipline is, in short, complicated.
“’Wait till your father comes home’ does not carry that sense of foreboding as it did in generations past,” Luke Tse, a psychologist who studies dads, tells Fatherly. “The traditional father as the head of the home does not carry the weight of acceptance or practice as it once did.” Tse points out that the science has yet to fully catch up with the shift in cultural expectations for fathers. Modern dads might yell or be distant, but that’s no longer accepted as a norm. Children today have a substantively different conception of what a father’s role is supposed to be.
Research on fathers began, more or less, in the 1960s and was for the following decades disproportionately focused on absent dads rather than present ones. Fathers who stuck around were assumed to be preoccupied with their responsibilities as providers. Strange as it sounds, researchers really only started to pay attention to engaged fathers in the 1990s after the divorce rate skyrocketed.
In one of the first studies to tackle the topic in 1992, researchers tracked the disciplinary styles of over 100 parents with children in preschool. Based on the self-reported accounts of disciplinary styles moms and dads, results showed that when mothers used more harsh, coercive, and power-assertive forms of discipline, their kids displayed more aggression and were generally less popular with among their peers. Paternal disciplinary behaviors, on the other hand, seemed to have little to no effect. This result was not very exactly replicated in a 2006 study of Chinese parents, published in Child Development, found that the combined impact of mothers and fathers mattered much more in terms of installing or diminishing anti-social behavior than either party acting alone. Obviously, that’s not a very helpful finding for fathers.
Erin Holmes, a professor and family fatherhood researcher at Brigham Young University, explains that, based on the limited research available, harsh discipline from either parent is associated with an increased risk of antisocial behavior. The difference might be the rates at which parents employ harsh discipline.
Still, there are some more direct connections that can be drawn, specifically if — as some researchers suspect — children have a delayed reaction to dad discipline. Studies conducted by developmental psychologist Danielle DelPriore, indicate that disciplinarian dads raise daughters who are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors as teens, hang out with peers who do the same, and keep their parents at arm’s length.
“Although we did not explicitly ask about these behaviors in a disciplinary context,” DelPriore notes, “one would imagine that fathers who engaged in these types of behaviors were probably more harsh or coercive disciplinarians.”
More new research out of Penn State demonstrates how a father’s rejection – using love withdrawal as a disciplinary tactic – contributes to social anxiety and loneliness in kids as they get older. The findings also showed no such impact from maternal rejection, and interestingly, no difference between boys and girls. This study and DelPriore’s work similarly challenge the sex-specific notion researchers have held for some time that dad discipline mostly affects sons and mom discipline mostly affects daughters.
“Rejection from fathers contributes to adolescent wariness in social situations in ways that other family relationships do not,” study co-author Hio Wa Mak, doctoral student of human development and family studies at Penn State, tells Fatherly. “It seems that there are different processes by which mothers’ and fathers’ parenting impacts adolescents’ social adjustment.”
As parents wait for more research to clarify what these processes are, psychologist Tina Payne Bryson has observed another anecdotal, yet notable difference in her clinical practice between mothers and fathers. Mothers tend to discipline kids more because they care about their social relationship with their child. That’s why mothers are more likely to take misbehavior personally, and kids appear to fall apart more in response — because they are primed to react more emotionally.
“Dads tend to discipline because they want their children to grow up to do well in the world and not get denied opportunities because they’re not well behaved,” Bryson explains. In other words, the impact of paternal discipline may show up later in life because that’s actually the intent.
Whether harsh and rejecting, or empathetic and nurturing, the scientific consensus is that dad discipline does have a substantive impact. Likewise, researchers agree that the role of fathers is changing and that different cultural expectations and behaviors will yield different results going forward. Tse says that new generations of caring, engaged fathers are a part of a growing dataset to be mined to learn more about what happens when dads discipline more productively.
“Fathers who have deemed their own experiences while growing up as harsh have reacted to them and soften their approach to their children,” Tse adds.