A Dad Speaks

3 02 2009

By Joe Kelly

Journalist, activist and father Joe Kelly co-founded Dads & Daughters® (DADs), the first national advocacy nonprofit for fathers and daughters. He is the author of many books including The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship (Broadway, 2007). Learn more about his important work at www.dadsanddaughters.org

Believe it or not, some people (including many men) continue to ask whether fathers matter all that much to children. Well, stop and ask yourself how your relationship (or lack thereof) with your father or stepfather affected your life. Ask almost anyone else you know the same question.  Give me the answers you get, and I rest my case.

Let’s be clear, fathers are not more important than mothers. Nor are fathers less important than mothers. It’s not a matter of keeping score about who is better or more necessary–keeping score accomplishes nothing in raising kids. Mothers and fathers are different, and when a child has committed, involved parents and stepparents, she is very lucky.  

Fathering is Good for Your Kid  

In the world of social science research, it’s hard to find unanimity on any aspect of human relations. It’s a lot like politics; people can find all sorts of reasons to disagree and statistics to show why.  One of the few things almost all psychological and social research agrees on is this: Children benefit markedly when loving and informed fathers and/or stepfathers are actively involved in their lives.  That is not at all to say that every child who grows up without close ties to his father (due to death, divorce, illness, incarceration, etc.) is doomed to a dreary life of endless failure. That’s nonsense.    It’s nonsense to suggest that every interaction between a father and child is good for the child-dads who abuse or abandon their children inflict immeasurable harm that can last a lifetime. All of us (men especially) must do more to hold such fathers accountable.  It’s also nonsense to say that father care is the only factor that gives kids an edge. Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, MD, of the Yale University Child Study Center writes that fathering research is in the early stages of exploring “the sometimes murky waters of what father care does to effect development in children and why we think it works the way it does…We have just begun to understand how this works, and every time we get an answer, we unearth more (and usually better) questions.”

Pruett, in his great book Fatherneed (Free Press, 2000) says a father’s importance starts with his very presence: “[H]is smells, textures, voice, rhythms, [and] size promote an awareness in his child that it is okay to be different and okay to desire and love the inherently different, the not-mother entities of the world.” (p.57)

The odds that a child will grow up healthier and more resilient improve when dad is integral to her upbringing. Let’s take the example of a child’s first months of life. If a dad actively raises his child during her first six months, she will achieve higher physical and intellectual progress. Social science research suggests that a daughter with an actively involved father is also more likely to:

  • Learn to read sooner and better.
  • Be more comfortable with physicality and physical risk.
  • Be more sociable.
  • Develop a higher preschool IQ.
  • Have a stronger sense of humor.
  • Cope better with stress and frustration.
  • Have higher preschool math competence and be more willing to try new things.
  • Reach puberty at a later age.
  • Be better at problem-solving.
  • Act out less.
  • Be more comfortable with and accepting of people who disagree with her.
  • Graduate high school and attend college.  

Several studies indicate that when fathers read to their children, kids develop higher verbal skills than when their mothers alone read to them. Particularly during the first year of life, avid father participation in child-rearing strengthens the infant’s cognitive function.  Unfortunately, there has been less media coverage about fathers who are equal parenting partners than about “deadbeat dads” who abandon their kids. Sensationalistic and simplistic press coverage doesn’t paint an accurate picture-and it doesn’t really help fight the scourge of intentional father abandonment and abuse. The number of intentionally absent fathers if far, far greater than it should be and than it has to be.  

Keeping in mind the tendency toward over-simplification in “father absence” research, we can find some patterns which suggest that a daughter without an actively involved father is more likely to:  

  • Grow up in poverty.
  • Have more rigid gender stereotypes.
  • Display aggressive, disruptive behavior.
  • Become sexually active at a younger age.
  • Get pregnant before adulthood.
  • Drop out of school.
  • Have more difficulty with internal control.
  • Develop depression.  

This is just the beginning of why it’s good for dads to be fully involved in a daughter’s life as early and as often as possible.   

Better than Broccoli  

Believe it or not, even with all the demands and the steep learning curve (see What Little Boys Learn), actively involved fathers are healthier and happier than the average man. Yes, fathering is very good for a man, and (at least in my book) it’s a lot more fun than eating broccoli. Not that dads and moms shouldn’t eat broccoli . . . it is good for you, too.  According to fathering researchers, involved fathers are more likely to be productive at work, take fewer sick days, and move up the career ranks. Fathers who continue to learn and get better at managing the demands of child-rearing tend to do better managing other life demands, and feel good about themselves as a result.  Ask a veteran father if he’s learned anything from his children, and you will almost surely hear a big “Of course!” From day one, our children teach both moms and dads amazing things about the world, our families, themselves, and ourselves. Now that this individual child has entered your life, you two parents may even reveal miraculous new things about yourselves to each other on a regular (if not daily) basis.  Veteran dads also say that the more a father nurtures his daughter, the more he will feel nurtured by her in return. Especially in the first year, involved dads crave the times that the baby responds to him because it makes him feel euphoric and deeply content.

Good for Her and the Two of You    

Dads and daughters are not the only beneficiaries of active fathering. Statistically, the mother is more likely to be happier and healthier. And to top it off, the relationship between Mom and Dad tends to be happier and healthier when Dad is sharing the parenting equally.  For years, mothers have told pollsters and researchers that their biggest stress is managing all the demands of child-rearing, even if they don’t also have to handle the demands of a paying job. So, the more parenting responsibilities a father takes on, the greater the chance that his partner’s stress level will drop, making her a happier camper.  Not only that, some research indicates that mothers are better at their mothering when fathers share the everyday parenting. These moms show their children more patience, emotional openness, and flexibility.

That makes sense, because a daughter generally happens to two people. The more those two adults share the responsibility (and opportunity) of child-rearing, the more likely that the job gets done well.  It also stands to reason that reducing stress for someone in a marriage or other partnering relationships reduces stress in the relationship itself. That opens the door for more happiness for the two people in it. There might be some chicken-and-egg forces at work here, too, since men who are happy in their marriage are more likely to be actively involved fathers, and reinforce the whole circle of good stuff that comes from making that commitment.  To top it off, some research indicates that siblings interact with each other better when their father is active in child-rearing, which means his involvement may make the entire family a better place to live and grow up.  Do fathers and stepfathers matter to their daughters and their families? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”-just as it would be if we asked if mothers and stepmothers matter to their daughters and families.  So, should we encourage and promote active fathering? The answer to that question is clear.   

Adapted from The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Being a New Dad by Joe Kelly and used with permission.