For decades, psychologists and other researchers assumed that the mother-child bond was the most important one in a kid’s life. They focused on studying those relationships, and however a child turned out, mom often got the credit — or blame.
Within the last several decades, though, scientists are increasingly realizing just how much dads matter. Just like women, fathers’ bodies respond to parenthood, and their parenting style affects their kids just as much, and sometimes more, than mom’s.
“We’re now finding that not only are fathers influential, sometimes they have more influence on kids’ development than moms,” said Ronald Rohner, the director of the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut.
Feeling dad’s love
Rohner and his colleagues recently reviewed decades of studies on parental acceptance and rejection across the globe. Unsurprisingly, parents have a major effect on their kids. When kids feel rejected or unloved by mom and dad, they’re more likely to become hostile, aggressive and emotionally unstable. Parental rejection also can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and negative worldviews.
Behavior problems, delinquency, depression, substance abuse and overall psychological adjustment are all more closely linked to dad’s rejection than mom’s, Rohner said.
By the same token, dad’s love is sometimes a stronger influence for children than mom’s, the researchers found.
“Knowing that kids feel loved by their father is a better predictor of young adults’ sense of well-being, of happiness, of life satisfaction than knowing about the extent to which they feel loved by their mothers,” Rohner said. He and his colleagues detailed their findings in May in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.
Influence and persistence
The research looked only at male father figures, so while the dad in question doesn’t have to be biological, the results don’t apply to absentee fathers. Rohner and his colleagues aren’t certain why fathers sometimes outshine moms in their kids’ development. In every family, Rohner said, there is a member with more influence and prestige — the person who might set the weekend plans, for example. In families where dad is that person, his actions might make the greatest impression on the children.
In those cases, “kids tend to pay more attention to what dad does and dad says than mom, and he’s going to have more influence,” Rohner said.
Dads may also be responsible for endowing their kids with “stick-with-it-ness” that serves them well in life. In a study of two-parent families published Friday (June 15) in the Journal of Early Adolescence, Brigham Young University researchers found that dad’s parenting style is more closely linked to whether teens will exhibit persistence than mom’s parenting. A persistent personality, in turn, was related to less delinquency and more engagement in school over time.
The magic fathering style that was linked to such persistence in kids is called authoritative parenting, a style characterized by warmth and love, accountability to the rules (but explanations of why those rules exist), and age-appropriate autonomy for kids, the researchers found.
“Our study suggests fathers who are most effective are those who listen to their children, have a close relationship, set appropriate rules, but also grant appropriate freedoms,” study researcher Laura Padilla-Walker told LiveScience.
It’s not clear why dads might be more important than moms in teaching perseverance, but it’s possible that fathers simply focus on this trait more, while moms teach traits like gratitude and kindness, Padilla-Walker said. [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]
Being a good dad
Fortunately for dads, biology is there to back up good parenting. Hormonal studies have revealed that dads show increased levels of oxytocin during the first weeks of their babies’ lives. This hormone, sometimes called the “love hormone,” increases feelings of bonding among groups. Dads get oxytocin boosts by playing with their babies, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Fatherhood also leads to declines in testosterone, the “macho” hormone associated with aggressive behavior, according to research published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This change is stronger the more involved a dad is with his baby’s care, suggesting that it may reduce a man’s risk-taking drive and encourage nurturing and domesticity.
What’s most important, Padilla-Walker said, is that fathers realize they matter. Quality time is important, she said.
“That doesn’t mean going on fancy vacations, it can be playing ball in the backyard or watching a movie with your kids,” she said. “Whatever it is, just make yourself available and when you’re with your children, be with them.”
Despite the fact that men are increasingly involved in family life, stereotypes about dad still persist: He’s bumbling. He’s immature. He’s never seen a dirty diaper he’d volunteer to change.
Research is increasingly revealing that dads make a big difference in their kids’ lives — and (surprise, surprise), they’re perfectly capable of being competent parents. For example, dads can recognize their baby’s cries as well as moms, and in some cases, a father-child relationship can influence that kid’s life to a greater extent than the mother-child bond.
“Given the rising role of women as breadwinners in a large minority of families, it’s important to realize that men bring more than money to the parenting enterprise,” said W. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies marriage and families. [History’s 12 Most Doting Dads]
The involved dad
The bumbling dad stereotype is a favorite caricature for marketers. In March 2012, the diaper brand Huggies ran an ad campaign that called alone time with dad “the ultimate test” for their diapers — a phrasing taken to mean that fathers were too dumb to handle diaper changing. The brand quickly learned that modern dads don’t take kindly to such implications. After an outcry and an online petition, Huggies pulled the ads and altered them to be more dad-friendly.
The incident illustrates how fatherhood, like motherhood, has changed with time. Mothers still take on a disproportionate amount of child care and household tasks compared with dads, but fathers are catching up.
As of 2011, fathers spent seven hours a week on child care and 10 hours a week on housework, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s approximately half of what mothers do, but it’s a huge leap from 1965, when dads did only two-and-a-half hours a week of child care and four hours of housework.
Increasingly involved dads are good news for kids, studies suggest. For example, dads who nurture and play with their babies have kids who grow up to have higher IQs, according to a 2006 report by the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect.
These benefits extend into the teen years: In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education found that kids with highly involved biological fathers were 43 percent more likely than kids without involved biological dads to earn mostly A’s in school. (Other studies of fatherhood suggest that stepdads, adoptive fathers and other father figures can provide the same kinds of benefits for kids as biological dads.)
And feel free to throw stereotypes about maternal instinct besting dad’s parenting skills out the window. A paper published in April in the journal Nature Communications revealed that it’s experience, not gender, that cues a parent into his or her child’s voice. As long as men spent at least four hours a day with their baby, they were as good as moms at telling the difference between their infant’s cry and those of other babies.
A father’s touch
Dads influence their kids’ lives particularly strongly in four areas, Wilcox, who co-edited the book “Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives” (Columbia University Press, 2013), told LiveScience.
One is how they play with their kids: Dads are more likely to roughhouse than moms, a style of play that helps teach kids to control their bodies and emotions.
Fathers are also more likely to encourage their kids to embrace risk, both on the playground and in life. This influences the ambitions of children over the long run. Dads who believe in gender equality, for example, are more likely than dads with sexist beliefs to have daughters with high career ambitions, according to research presented at the 2013 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January. In fact, dads’ gender beliefs were more influential on their daughters than moms’ beliefs.
A strong relationship with dads protects kids, too, Wilcox said.
Children with involved fathers are less likely to become victims of sexual assault or abuse. A good relationship with dad can also influence a child’s sexual behavior. Teens close with their fathers start having sex later, on average, an October 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found. Teens listen to their dads, even if it may not seem like it, the study also found: Fathers who approved of early sexual activity were more likely to have sexually active teens compared with dads who disapproved. (The study included stepfathers, biological fathers, adoptive fathers and even male “father figures” such as uncles under the umbrella of dads.)
Finally, Wilcox said, dads tend to lay down firmer discipline than moms. Mothers discipline children more, he said, because they spend more time with kids, but their strategies tend to allow for more negotiation and bent rules. Neither strategy is better or worse, Wilcox said, but it benefits kids to be exposed to both. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
Dads are often cited for their influence on their sons, but the father-daughter relationship is extremely important, too, said Linda Nielsen, a Wake Forest University Psychologist and author of “Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research & Issues” (Routledge, 2012).
“The father is generally going to have a greater impact on his daughter’s ambitions, assertiveness, the kinds of attitudes she needs to get ahead in school and to get ahead in the world of work and to get ahead financially,” Nielsen told LiveScience. That’s because, even as more and more moms work outside the home, fathers are still more likely to have jobs requiring assertiveness, negotiation skills and leadership, she said.
As for how to build the kind of father-child relationship that will help kids get ahead, Nielsen recommends lots of quality time and encourages moms to get on board. Mothers often act as “gatekeepers” in how close a child, especially a daughter, gets with her dad. If mom is hurt when a daughter wants to confide in dad, it can stall that father-daughter dynamic, Nielsen said.
Meanwhile, dads should open up to daughters about personal matters, Nielsen said, getting off the track of talking about the weather, sports and money. The bottom line: A caring dad matters.
“The more dads engage with their kids,” Wilcox said, “the more likely their kids are to flourish.”
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