Dads matter. Children of involved fathers are less likely to drop out of school, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and break the law, and more likely to have high IQ scores, pursue healthy relationships, and hold down high-paying jobs. But these are just the general benefits of having a father who is available and engaged. Beyond that, several studies have investigated how a dad’s specific decisions or parenting styles can influence his children, for better or for worse.
Dad Shapes the Way Kids Speak and Hear
It’s almost never worthwhile to yell at your kid, and you don’t usually need to. Because you have an even more effective tool at your disposal: dad voice. Most men are capable of growling at a lower register than most women, and humans are programmed to revere baritone warnings. Studies have shown that presidential candidates with deeper voices are more likely to win elections, and that both men and women trust voices closer to 81 Hz (James Earl Jones) than voices closer to 136 Hz (Sean Connery). Lower voices may indicate higher levels of testosterone, so some scientists suspect we trust and follow deep dad rumbles because they signal to our lizard brains that we’re dealing with someone capable of protecting us.
Interestingly, boys start mimicking dad voice at five years of age, rounding their lips to come off sounding masculine. So dropping into a lower register isn’t just an easy way to command respect—it’s training the next generation of dads to make liberal use of their vocal tracts.
Dad Shapes the Way Kids Understand Their Social Identities
It’s not just about your voice—it’s about the words you say. Researchers claim even seemingly sweet pet names for your daughter, such as “princess”, can perpetuate gender stereotypes. The term “princess” connotes, “The need to be rescued. The need for help from others. A high emphasis on their physical appearance,” Lisa Dinella of Monmouth University told Fatherly. “Valuing somebody for whether they are attractive or not, at the cost of other traits.”
If dads want to raise strong daughters, they’re going to need pet names that evoke strength. “We don’t think of princesses as being brave, strong, and courageous, aggressive leaders,” Dinella says. “We’re sending a message to girls that those traits aren’t as important.”
Dad Shapes Media Consumption Habits
You’d be surprised just how much racism kids can pick up from your behavior. Studies have shown that, even if you never display outward signs of racism or say derogatory things about other ethnicities, your children detect and acquire your subtle biases. Activities as seemingly harmless as using “us vs. them” expressions, or avoiding foods and TV shows from other countries could betray unconscious biases that your children carry for the rest of their lives.
Dads impact their kids—even when they’re ordering out, or vegging in front of the TV.
Dad Shapes Attitudes Towards Others
You might consider yourself the most liberal dad on the block. But as long as you’re teaching your kids not to see color, race, sexual orientation, or religion, you’re probably doing them a disservice. That’s because, when kids are taught to be “color-blind” (as opposed to recognizing and accepting differences), they grow up to be skittish and off-putting as they scramble to pretend that they don’t know black people are black or that gay people are gay. One fascinating study of this phenomenon found that white children raised to be “color-blind” were unable to complete even simple tasks when paired up with black teammates, for fear of offending them.
It’s simple. If you’re telling your kids that everyone deserves dignity, you’re doing a great job. If you’re telling your kids that everyone is the same, however, you’re probably ruining them.
Dad Shapes (and Reshapes) Friendships
Kids need friends, and studies have shown that that well-liked first-graders are more likely to succeed academically. But if your kid has no friends, it may be your fault. One recent study found that, while positive parenting practices don’t help kids make friends, depressed and controlling parents increase the risk of their children losing the friends they have. As the authors put it: “Coercive and psychologically controlling parents may fail to provide a hospitable environment for guests, who may become disinclined to visit or even extend invitations that may necessitate interacting with an off-putting parent who is strict and punitive.”
As a dad, this means a moment or two of introspection. Are you making your home into the sort of place that kids want to visit for playdates? Are you too stressed or exhausted to play host? Is your strict parenting style causing your child to struggle when it comes to making friends?
Dad Facilitates Problem Behaviors
Not that you’d be better off running to the other extreme. Because, despite generations of anecdotal evidence, children who are allowed to run wild tend to continue running wild into adulthood. One recent study found that dads who give their kids alcohol prime them for lifelong struggles with alcoholism. Far from the “everything in moderation” or “better if they try it with me” approach, the findings suggest that a good dad is a dad who keeps his beer to himself.
“There is no study which supports the view that parents giving alcohol to their kids reduces, moderates, or positively influences their drinking habits — quite the reverse,” co-author on the study Richard Mattick told Fatherly. “There’s nothing in the literature that suggests these parents who think they’re doing the right thing are achieving a positive outcome.”
It’s a brutal list—we know. But it drives home an important point: dads matter, and your best and worst behaviors are both capable of influencing your children in the long run. Being a good dad means making healthy decisions even before conceiving so that your kid has the best shot, genetically speaking. It means coaching your partner through pregnancy and birth so that your bond to your child starts early. It means playing with your infant, no matter how boring he may be, and it means counseling your teenage daughter about making smart choices.
But more than anything else, it means realizing that your kids are always watching. That every decision you make—from chilling in front of the TV to calling your daughter “princess”—changes your family’s future, for better or for worse. Fathers are among children’s most important teachers, sociologist Paul Amato once told Fatherly. “Fathers might ask themselves, what are my children learning — about life in general, about morality, about how family members should treat one another, about relationships — from observing me every day?