Moms are great, and essential, and since they still often do the bulk of the workload when it comes to kids and homes, they tend to get most of the credit – and most of the discussing when it comes to how to parent kids into successful and healthy adults.
One thing that moms really can’t ever 100% do, though, is be a dad – and science says that having a strong father figure in their lives contributes greatly to raising healthy and confident kids.
Kids with a present, engaged dad are more likely to stay in school and stay out of jail, to avoid high-risk behaviors, and to put off having sex until they’re older.
As adults, they tend to have higher-paying jobs and more healthy, stable romantic relationships, higher IQ scores, and generally deal with fewer mental health issues than kids whose fathers don’t take their roles seriously.
Paul Amato, a sociologist at Penn State, says we can assume this means fathers play a very important role.
“When fathers are actively involved with their children, children do better. Research suggests that fathers are important for a child’s development.”
Research is really just getting going when it comes to a father’s effect on his children, and all sorts of interesting correlations – like kids with engaged fathers being less prone to aggression – are starting to emerge.
Scientists are dubbing their findings “The Father Effect,” and Amato says that certain activities certainly count more than others.
“There needs to be a minimum amount of time spent together, but the quality of time is more important than the quantity of time. Just watching television together, for example, isn’t going to help much.”
Showing up is, as ever, half the battle – dads who live with their kids and take time out of their days to attend events and find ways to connect will always have more of a positive impact than absent fathers.
Dads who live apart from their kids have more limited options, but sociologist Marcy Carlson says there are still things you can do to strengthen your influence.
“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. There’s tons of evidence that financial support of kids is good for their outcomes. If dads can provide for their children, that goes a long way.”
More than just being around, though, Carlson goes on to say dads should try to be engaged.
“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. Warmth is also a key factor. Fathers who spent a lot of time with their kids but are dismissive or insulting tend to have only negative impacts.”
And yes, says Danielle DelPriore, a developmental psychologist at the University of Utah, your attitude can make a huge difference.
“Low-quality fathering can involve behaving coldly toward one’s children. Insulting them, or engaging in problem behaviors are largely incompatible with being a present and engaged father.”
Society is beginning, slowly, to expect more from fathers during every stage of development, and all of the signs point to this being a huge benefit for kids.
A father’s impact on his child begins at conception, since half of a child’s DNA comes from the sperm half of the equation. Men who binge drink before and during conception are more likely to have kids with congenital heart defects and who will themselves abuse alcohol, and poor dietary choices can lead to negative pregnancy outcomes, too, explains Joanna Kitlinska of Georgetown.
“We know that nutritional, hormonal, and psychological environment provided by the mother permanently alters organ structure, cellular response, and gene expression in her offspring. 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.”
Studies suggest that the earlier a father can get involved, the better – being there during and immediately after labor helps him develop a relationship and a stronger attachment to the baby – and that always leads to better outcomes for the tots.
Even though babies don’t miss dad when he’s gone, or really seem able to engage in a two way attachment, the science says that dads being in the picture is still important – by age 1, infants with present fathers have higher cognitive scores across the board.
As babies grow into toddlers, dads become even more important. Studies suggest that when fathers are involved in everyday tasks like dinner, playing in the yard, etc, kids thrive.
When kids are young, dads have similar effects regardless of gender, but as kids mature, a present dad affects girls differently than boys, explains DelPriore.
“Numerous past studies find a link between low-quality fathering and daughters’ sexual outcomes, including early and risky sexual behavior. A father who is cold or disengaged may change daughters’ social environments and sexual psychology in ways that promote unrestricted sexual behavior.”
She believes that daughters learn from their absent fathers that they shouldn’t expect men to invest meaningfully into their lives, so are more likely to be ok with risky and casual flings.
“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. Dads do not have to be perfect, and making a genuine effort to be there for their daughters could make a big difference.”
There are several studies that look at children who have lost fathers to death or prison, and the findings are sobering. Fathers who are away can have no effect whatsoever, and if that father is away in prison because of his own choices, stigma and stress also play significant roles.
There are so many factors involved when it comes to being a good dad, and in raising healthy and mentally strong kids, but there are many ways you can give your kids a leg up, too, by just being there, being present, and legitimately caring about your children.
“Fathers and mothers are children’s most important teachers. Fathers might ask themselves, what are my children learning – about life in general, about mortality, about how family members should treat one another, about relationships – from observing me every day?”