The Encouraging Science Of Fatherhood And The 'Father Effect'

There are data-driven reasons why kids do better with a father figure in their lives.

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Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Shutterstock

There’s no question that parenting styles impact a kid’s well-being long into the future. No pressure! But it’s often motherhood, rather than fatherhood, that dominates parenting studies. This leaves the question of how to be a good dad somewhat in the shadows. So far, we know that kids who grow up with a present, engaged dad are less likely to drop out of school or wind up in jail, compared to children with absent fathers and no other male caretakers or role models. When children have close relationships with father figures, they tend to avoid high-risk behaviors, and they’re less likely to have sex at a young age. They’re more likely to have high-paying jobs and healthy, stable relationships when they grow up. They also tend to have higher IQ test scores by the age of 3 and endure fewer psychological problems throughout their lives when dads take the role of a father seriously. Altogether, these benefits of having an engaged dad are called the “father effect.”

“When fathers are actively involved with their children, children do better,” says Paul Amato, Ph.D., a sociologist who studies parent-child relationships at Pennsylvania State University. “Research suggests that fathers are important for a child’s development.”

To a man holding his baby, this may seem like a given. But strange as it may sound, fatherhood is an emerging field of study. Scientists are making up for lost time by finally releasing conclusive data about a father’s effect on his children. Almost daily, academic journals are publishing new data that illustrates how men can both help and hurt their children, and how to be a better dad.

Some of these results — ugly divorces aren’t great for kids — are relatively obvious. Others are not. Not everyone would guess that there’s a consistent correlation between a father figure’s presence and a lack of aggression in kids. There is. One wouldn’t assume that dad sticking around reduces the risk of female delinquency. It does.

The “father effect” is the umbrella term for the benefits of a paternal presence. Of course, a father’s active participation in the family is always preferable. “There needs to be a minimum amount of time spent together, but the quality of time is more important than the quantity of time,” Amato says. “Just watching television together, for example, isn’t going to help much.”

Fortunately, modern fathers want to be more involved. And, increasingly, society expects more of them. This wasn’t always the case. That’s why the emerging consensus on the importance of fathers during every stage of a child’s development is worth watching. Scientists are studying, on some level at least, a new phenomenon. Their findings support a conclusion that might change how fathers raise their kids.

Fatherhood Starts With Sperm

Fathers are more than just sperm donors, but the DNA sperm carries is important. There is perhaps no greater and more universal father effect than genetic information.

Some dads will inevitably pass genetic diseases to their kids. One way to decrease the odds of passing along the most debilitating diseases is to seek genetic counseling before conceiving, especially if you’re a member of a high-risk group.

However, epigenetics — the study of changes in the expression of DNA that are caused by lifestyle choices, the environment, and other outside factors — may be the most important information to look at when studying the effects parents have on their kids. Although we tend to blame mothers for ruining the genetic information in their eggs with drugs and alcohol, we previously had little understanding of how a father’s vices might impact their sperm. We now know that the decisions a man makes before conception can have lifelong impacts on his kids.

Studies suggest that men who binge drink before conception are more likely to have kids with congenital heart diseases and who abuse alcohol. Poor dietary choices in men can lead to negative pregnancy outcomes. At least one study suggests that men who are stressed before conception may predispose their offspring to high blood sugar.

“We know the nutritional, hormonal, and psychological environment provided by the mother permanently alters organ structure, cellular response, and gene expression in her offspring,” cellular biologist Joanna Kitlinska, Ph.D., of Georgetown University, who ran a study on the subject in 2016, said in a statement. “But our study shows the same thing to be true with fathers — his lifestyle, and how old he is, can be reflected in molecules that control gene function.”

Good Dads Are Incubated

Until the 1960s, experts seldom encouraged dads to take part in parent groups, to participate during labor, or to care for infants. It was generally understood that dads existed to teach their toddlers to walk and their kids to play catch, not to handle baby stuff. But the past few decades of research suggests that the earlier a dad gets involved, the better.

In a 1997 book on the subject, researchers argued that fathers who are actively involved in labor are effectively developing relationships (albeit one-way relationships) with their children. Subsequent studies have suggested this leads to stronger early attachment to the baby. Whether early attachment to a baby breeds more serious involvement in the long-term is a matter of debate, but there’s plenty of evidence that it does. In a 2011 literature review on paternal involvement during pregnancy and labor, the authors claim that dads who are actively involved and invested in the baby before they’re born disproportionately remain involved in the child’s life.

And, as numerous studies have shown, more paternal involvement means better outcomes for kids. To foster this connection, some scientists have argued that healthy women and newborns should return home as soon as possible after delivery, especially if the father is not allowed to stay overnight in the hospital.

This is not to say that fathers play a critical role in the development of fetuses. After their initial genetic contribution, they’re down for the count until after delivery. But pregnancy and labor are when the groundwork for the father effect begins, and its importance cannot be overstated.

Engaged Father Figures

Before we dive into how involved fathers help their kids (and how uninvolved fathers harm them), it’s important to highlight what an engaged, active, involved father looks like.

First of all, showing up is half the battle. Dads who live with their kids and take time out of their days to attend important events are far more likely to have a positive impact than absent fathers.

For dads who live apart from their kids, there are limited options. “Writing letters, phone calls — even if you’re not in physical proximity, knowing your dad cares and wants to be involved to the extent that they can is really important,” says Marcy Carlson, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As a backup, buying love isn’t the worst idea. “There’s tons of evidence that financial support of kids is good for their outcomes,” she says. “If dads can provide for their children, that goes a long way.”

Being around is one thing; being engaged is another. “The quantity of interaction doesn’t really benefit kids. But if you have more high-quality, engaged parenting, that does seem to be positively related to outcomes for children,” Carlson says.

Warmth is also a key factor. Fathers who spend a lot of time with their kids but are dismissive or insulting tend to have only negative impacts. “Low-quality fathering can involve behaving coldly toward one’s children,” says Danielle DelPriore, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Utah. “Insulting them or engaging in problem behaviors are largely incompatible with being a present and engaged father.”

The Importance of Fathers to Infants and Toddlers

There’s a reason that fathers often find themselves wondering why they should bother investing time and energy into infants who, for at least another couple of years, won’t care or remember. By all accounts, they don’t miss dad much when he travels. They’re as excited to see a puppy or an apple as they are to hug dad when he comes home from work. But it’s important for dads to see the big picture here. These short-term reactions are very different than the long-term effects of dad being around.

One 1991 study found that infants attained higher cognitive scores at age 1 if their fathers were involved in their lives when they were 1 month old. Preterm infants similarly score higher at 36 months if their dads play an active role from birth. A separate study found that infants who played with their dads at 9 months enjoyed similar benefits. (Although the trend holds across several studies, it’s important to note that at least one study did not find a link between fathers playing with their infants and cognitive development.)

When infants transition into toddlers, the father effect becomes even more pronounced. Studies suggest that when fathers are involved in everyday tasks — dinner, playing in the backyard — rather than expansive but one-off trips, toddlers and young children benefit. Dads also seem to offer a unique touch, with at least one study suggesting that fathers are better than mothers at teaching children how to swim because they’re less overprotective and more likely to let their children venture into the deep end or swim facing away from them.

As anecdotal evidence indicates, sons especially need their dads. In the book Do Fathers Matter?, Paul Raeburn describes how scientists observed that U.S. and Norwegian boys whose fathers were off fighting in World War II during their childhoods later had trouble forging relationships with others as they matured. Similar studies cited in the book show that sons who grow up without fathers (or with disengaged fathers) tend to be less popular in preschool. Broadly, the research suggests that boys lean on their fathers more than anyone else as they develop social skills. And one large study of nearly 9,000 adults confirmed that a father’s death affects sons more strongly than daughters, leading to the same sort of health problems seen after an ugly divorce.

Kids — even very young kids — need their dads. And, despite conventional wisdom (and its underpinning sexism), daughters need them too. But for different reasons.

Why Fathers Are Important For Daughters

Most studies suggest that, until children hit puberty, the father effect is roughly equal for boys and girls. Both boys and girls who are fortunate enough to have dads in their lives excel and, in some cases, outperform their peers. But when hormones kick in, studies demonstrate that dads suddenly become the arbiters of their children’s sexual behavior too. This is most acutely felt by teenage daughters, who take fewer sexual risks if they have strong relationships with their dads.

“Numerous past studies find a link between low-quality fathering and daughters’ sexual outcomes, including early and risky sexual behavior,” says DelPriore, who has studied how dads impact risky sex. “A father who is cold or disengaged may change daughters’ social environments and sexual psychology in ways that promote unrestricted sexual behavior.”

One of DelPriore’s studies on this phenomenon tracked 101 sister pairs between the ages of 18 and 36. She found that when one sister grew up with an active, warm father and the other was raised in a broken home, or after their father became less engaged, the former grew up to largely avoid casual unprotected sex while the latter often embraced it. Although DelPriore examined several outside factors, one of the most salient links between a woman and her sexual decision-making was how close she felt to her father. This was a particularly well-controlled study because it allowed DelPriore and her colleagues to examine how two women with similar genetics, and who were raised under similar environmental conditions, might differ in their sexual risk-taking.

DelPriore suggests that daughters might learn from disengaged fathers that they shouldn’t expect men to invest meaningfully in long-term relationships, so they settle for casual flings. It’s also possible that “daughters with disengaged fathers receive less parental monitoring and are more likely to affiliate with sexually promiscuous friends,” she says. “On the other hand, having a father who is warm and engaged can protect against these outcomes.”

“Engaged fathers” are those who behave warmly and interact meaningfully with their kids, DelPriore says. They’re the sort of dads who help with homework and attend sporting events. “When it comes to daughters, taking the time to listen to them, learn about their lives, show up for important events, and provide emotional support, could protect against early and unrestricted sexual behavior,” she says. “Dads do not have to be perfect, and making a genuine effort to be there for their daughters could make a big difference.”

What Happens When Dad Disappears?

An absence of dad means an absence of benefits. “For dads that live far away, it doesn’t seem there’s tons of evidence that what they do matters for their children,” says sociologist Marcy Carlson. “Dads living with their kids are much more involved; they read stories to their children and put their kids to bed. If you look at comparisons of resident and non-resident dads, there’s a consistent difference in average involvement.”

Children who lose a father to death or incarceration usually suffer more than those who have uninvolved fathers. Several research projects have focused on how a father’s incarceration can harm children. The largest of these efforts is Princeton University’s Fragile Families Study, which currently follows a cohort of 5,000 children born in the United States between 1998 and 2000. Most of the children in the study have unmarried parents and absentee fathers, for a variety of reasons. One of the most sobering findings of the Fragile Families Study is that when a dad is far away, there is relatively little he can do to have a positive influence on his children.

When “being away” means being behind bars, kids face additional challenges — sometimes more serious ones than what they would have faced had their fathers had died or left due to divorce. “Most of the literature on widowhood shows that kids whose dads died are better off than kids who go through a divorce,” she says. As for incarceration, “there’s a lot of stigma and stress. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s worse for kids when their dads are away due to incarceration.”

How to Be a Good Dad

A lot goes into being a good dad. Making healthy decisions before conceiving so that your kid has the best shot in life, genetically speaking. Coaching your partner through pregnancy and birth so that your bond to your child starts early. Learning to play with your infant even though they will never remember it. Counseling your teenage daughter about making smart choices.

But those are the mechanical parts of fatherhood. In a more general sense, these studies all emphasize the importance of not just parenting, but parenting well — not just being present and doing what the studies suggest, but legitimately caring for your children and modeling good behavior.

Perhaps most importantly, dads need to realize that their kids are always watching, and that what they do matters. How well a dad parents influences a child’s psychological, cognitive, and social development, and strongly steers them toward adulthood. Why? Because dads do matter.

“Fathers and mothers are children’s most important teachers,” Amato says. “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?”

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