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The Importance of Fathers

It's no secret that parenting a youngster is one of life's most challenging endeavors. And in the four centuries since George Herbert praised the power of paternal influence, more than a few cultural observers have called into question the value (and, in some cases, the very necessity) of a father's efforts on behalf of his kids.

But those critics are arguing in the face of considerable scientific and sociological research, the bulk of which points toward a common conclusion: Fathers matter – and good dads offer a world of benefits to their sons and daughters.

The Many Benefits of Effective Fatherhood—

The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) doesn't leave much room for interpretation when weighing in on the many benefits of effective fatherhood. Research literature supports the finding that a loving and nurturing father improves outcomes for kids, families and communities. Kids with involved, loving dads are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors including drug use, truancy, and criminal activity.

Citing information from a National Fatherhood Initiative publication titled “The Father Factor: How Father Absence Affects Our Youth,” the NRFC notes that dads who play an active role in their kid's lives can significantly increase the quality of their kid's lives, and decrease the threats to their healthy development:
  • Kids who live with their father and mother are less likely to engage in problematic behaviors that result in their being suspended or expelled from school.
  • Kids whose dads live with them are less likely to be either abused or neglected.
  • Females whose dads are not involved in their lives are at considerably higher risk of early sexual activity (and are seven times more likely to become pregnant) than are adolescents whose dads are involved with their upbringing.
  • Having a close relationship with one's father has been identified as a significant protective factor against adolescent drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Research indicates that kids are more likely to be healthy when they have dads who are involved in daily efforts to ensure their health and safety.

Fathers and Daughters—

Historically, the role of dads has been thought to be of primary importance to the development of sons, while the raising of daughters was often believed to be the province of the mother. Today, though, it is becoming increasingly clear that although mothers play a vital role in raising daughters (and sons), a father's relationship with his daughter can result in significant and measureable improvements to his daughter’s life.

For example, a May 27 article by clinical child psychologist and neuroscience researcher Nestor Lopez-Duran described the ways in which a healthy father-daughter relationship can have a significant positive influence on the daughter's relationships with romantic partners.

Writing for the Child Psychology Research Blog, Lopez-Duran reported on a study of 78 teen females and young adult women (average age of 19) in which the quality of the daughters' relationships with their dads was compared to the daughters' relationships with their current boyfriends.

An evaluation of three aspects of those relationships – communication, trust, and time spent together – led the researchers to conclude that daughters who communicated with and trusted their dads were likely to have similarly healthy relationships with their boyfriends:
  1. The amount of time that the females and young women spent with their dads was not associated with communication, trust, or time spent with their boyfriends.
  2. Females and young women who reported having good communication with their dads also had significantly better communication with their boyfriends than did study subjects who had low levels of communication with their dads.
  3. Females and young women who had high levels of trust with their dads also had significantly better communication and trust with their boyfriends.

Quality vs. Quantity—

As is noted in the study that Lopez-Duran described, effective fatherhood is about much more than spending time in the presence of one's kids. Being there, as the old adage advises, may be half the battle, but the true benefits of fatherhood are the results of actions, not mere presence.

In a paper titled "The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Kids," authors Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox established the following seven steps as essential components of effective fatherhood:
  1. Disciplining kids appropriately
  2. Fostering a positive relationship with the kid's mother
  3. Nurturing kids
  4. Protecting and providing
  5. Serving as a guide to the outside world
  6. Serving as a positive role model
  7. Spending time with kids

Though maintaining a presence in their kid's lives is obviously an important concern for dads, Rosenberg and Wilcox noted that " being there" is beneficial primarily as a means of engaging in the activities (such as disciplining, guiding, and nurturing) that ultimately make the biggest difference in kid's lives.

From Theory to Practice—

Expounding upon their seven pillars of effective fatherhood, Rosenberg and Wilcox provided specific examples of ways in which dads can influence and enrich their kid's lives:

Work with your kids. Dads should engage their kids in productive activities such as doing household chores, washing dishes after dinner, or cleaning up the yard, the authors advise. Research, they wrote, indicates that these types of activities promote responsibility, self-esteem, and self-worth among kids – qualities that have been associated with academic achievement, career advancement, and psychological health in adulthood.

Think with your kids. Dads should encourage their kid's intellectual growth, Rosenberg and Wilcox advised. From reading to (and later with) their kids to supporting their academic pursuits to meeting with teachers and attending school activities, dads who maintain an active role in their kid's education can provide specific support while also emphasizing the overall importance of academics.

Stay active with your kids. Dads should maintain an active, physical, and playful style of fathering even as their kids develop into adolescents and young adults, the authors encouraged, while putting an emphasis on "active." Activities such as tossing a football or going to the library are more valuable than spending time in passive endeavors such as watching television, they reported, noting that the benefits of active recreation extend to the emotional health, social growth and physical fitness of children.

Play with your kids. Dads' play has a unique role in a youngster's development, they wrote, noting that kids who play with their dads learn important lessons about exploring the world and keeping their aggressive impulses in check.

Our understanding of family dynamics, social development, and the psychology of father-child relationships has advanced considerably in the centuries since George Herbert extolled the many virtues of fatherhood. But the concept he expressed is as applicable today as it was in the 1600s: Fathers matter!

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