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Why 2-Year-Olds Need Dad, More Than Ever Before

Unhealthy aggressive impulses are wired into boys' brains early on, but fathers can help.

Children need involved fathers throughout their lives — kids with active dads are less likely to drop out of school, become obese, have risky sex, and develop mental health problems. But little boys, in particular, need their dads during the “terrible 2s,” when boys experience testosterone-fueled aggression for the first time and have no idea how to deal with it. During this crucial period, it’s up to father figures to show boys how to cope with their emotional impulses, so they don’t become aggressive, violent men. 

“A child can get into all kinds of trouble,” Paul Golding, psychologist and executive director of Santa Fe Boys Educational Foundation, told Fatherly. “Usually this becomes socialized out of children by the time they start school. Rough and tumble play between fathers and sons is a good way to channel this boy energy at this time.”

That’s not to say little girls don’t need proper role models, too. But a growing amount of evidence — including one new study in the Journal of Infant Mental Health — suggests that boys are more vulnerable than girls when it comes to chemical toxins, neglect, abuse, and other factors that can disrupt healthy neurological development. “Optimal human male gender functioning in adulthood is associated with regulated testosterone levels that underlie adaptive sexual functions, pair bonding, and fathering, as well as implicit power motivation and achievement motivation,” writes study author Allan Schore, of UCLA. Experts suspect that some of these biological imperatives, and gender differences in brain development, may even explain why there are higher rates of autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, and attachment disorders among men. 

The same could be said for girls born with abnormally high levels of prenatal testosterone, or congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), Golding notes. About 1 out of 5,000 girls are born with CAH in the U.S. and, like boys who have been exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb, they display less empathy, more aggression, assertiveness, and impulsive behavior. And for them, too, an active father mitigates much of the harm. Studies suggest girls with CAH, like boys, benefit greatly from rough and tumble play with dad.

Of course, not every child has a father. Fortunately, Golding clarifies that father figures — mentors, teachers, and other caring adults — can shoulder the paternal responsibility of setting limits and modeling safe displays of aggression (even if rough and tumble play isn’t in the cards). “Boys will find compensation for father loss or father lack of salience wherever they are able,” he says. “The point is that fathering is important and we must ask the question why and who is doing it these days for both boys and girls and especially for boys.”