The importance of fathers (1)

Father’s Day 2021; as we enter the new normal, I wonder about our changing notions of fatherhood and the importance of fathers in American families.

Why are dads so important? What does science tell us about the importance of fathers?

According to thought leader Warren Farrell, dads help their children to develop greater impulse control, and consequential memory, as well as an enhanced ability to respond to novel or ambiguous interactions. 

The importance of fathers and a changing understanding

A commission of government experts was so impressed by recent research on dads, they used it to formulate policy initiatives.

Only recently has federal policy recognized the science on the importance of fathers in American families. Up until the first Obama administration, our policy focus was almost exclusively on mothers. 

However, that’s been changing over the last twelve years. Marriage education programs for at-risk families now include funding for dad’s engagement as well.

Federal social welfare programs now tend to include fathers in “case management.” 

But cultural assumptions don’t disappear just because new research just dropped on your desk.

The fact is that the importance of fathers is still neither fully appreciated, nor understood. 

Numerous non-profits and even some government agencies still often neglect to include information about the father, even when the couple is married.

Moms and dads and other binary notions

Our cultural assumptions about the importance of fathers are complicated and contradictory. 

The notion of “moms” and “dads” are perhaps too hetero-normative and binary. 

This means that available research does not adequately encompass the modern family. Researchers looking at families may in fact be assessing the benefits of a two-parent household vs. a single-parent household and not exclusively the virtues of fatherhood.

What does gender have to do with it? Why are certain virtues of good parenting trapped in the ambergris of gender?

Will we groan with embarrassment 20 years from now (as sometimes happens in social science) when we will understand the importance of “fathers” in a better paradigm than gender? 

When I look at research on the importance of fathers I see an opportunity to reframe how we look at this question. Before I introduce that notion, let’s look at the research as it stands.

Here’s what we believe we know about the importance of dads right now...

10 Important ways research tells us that fathers matter:

1. Children with involved fathers have significantly better outcomes overall. 

Having a concerned, involved dad is linked to better outcomes on almost every conceivable measurement of ideal development. 

Self-esteem, educational attainment, impulse control, and pro-social behavior are all correlated with a loving, involved dad. 

The importance of fathers is well known to social science. Children who grow up with involved dads are: 

  • Nearly 40% more likely to earn mostly A’s in school.
  • 45% less likely to repeat a grade.
  • 60% less likely to be expelled or suspended from class.
  • 80% less likely to spend time in jail.
  • 75% less likely to have a teen birth.

Additionally, kids with an involved dad are twice as likely to go to college and find stable employment after high school. The more a dad spends time with his children, the greater their attainment of empathy and emotional control.

2. A Dad’s Involvement curbs unwelcome teen pregnancy?

Yup... a good dad models appropriate impulse control. 

Nearly 30 years ago, studies showed that dads had a direct influence on whether or not their sons became teenage fathers. 

A Temple University study found no boys born to teen mothers became teen fathers when they enjoyed a close bond with their biological dads, compared to 15% of those who lacked that close connection with their dad.

3. A dad’s presence has a measurable boost to infant development. 

The importance of fathers is most apparent in the daily life of the family

When dads are actively involved in the direct care of their children; engaging in activities such as bathing, feeding, and playing together, children will acquire more confidence; and enjoy stronger and more vibrant relationships in adulthood.

Fathers who are actively involved in their babies’ lives—helping to care for them, and playfully engaging with them,  also tend to manage their moments of marital conflict more skillfully.

This strengthens the family and bestows long-term benefits for children.

Involved fathers who nurture, engage with, and attend to their children are not only dealing with the tasks at hand, they are also enhancing their kid’s language and cognitive skills. 

4. The ability to choose well is a legacy of a good dad.

Research shows that children absorb the moral values which underpin adult decisions from how they see their father’s engaging in the world. 

Researchers have known for a while that kids who feel the loving presence of their father are less likely to use drugs, and do better in school.

A good dad exhibits pro-social behavior and installs a reliable moral compass in his children.

5. Good dads foster empathy...and help model a good marriage. 

When good dads are engaged, their kids are more flexible and accepting of differences, and possess greater emotional self-control. 

This deeper capacity for empathy and fair play means his kids will have happier, more committed marriages in their adult future (Abramovitch & Lamb, 1997).

6. The importance of fathers is dads.

Dads are much more involved in their kid’s lives than they were 50 years ago. Dads in 2021 are doing triple the amount of child care they provided in 1965. 

And dads put in an average of  10 hours a week on household chores in 2016, up from four hours in 1965...a 120% increase in 50 years.

7. But not, sadly... by the rest of us.

Pew research looked at American cultural ideas on the importance of fathers in 2016.

At that time, 53% of Americans said moms were more competent caring for an infant. 

27% said it’s more important for a baby to bond with their mother than their dad. 39% said if one parent is to stay home, it’s better if it is mom.

8. Dads see their identity as a parent as do moms. 

Cultural norms may tell us that moms would see the role as parent as more vital to their identity than dad does.

Not true. 

  • In a 2015 study, 58% of mothers and 57% of fathers described their role as parents as a core aspect of their identity.

  • 54% of Dads described parenting as “rewarding all of the time” and 52% of moms reported the same.

9. Dads have internalized the importance of fathers and are more prone to self-criticism than moms.

In a Pew Research survey conducted in 2017, most dads (63%) felt that they spend too little time with their children, while only 35% of mothers expressed the same feeling.

Dads are also far less confident in their parenting skills than moms. Only 39% of fathers reported that they were doing a “very good job” raising their children, compared with over half (51%) of mothers in the same study.

This lack of confidence can really show itself in blended families. Couples therapists often see fathers struggling to navigate the emotional demands of their biological children from their first marriage within the boundaries of their current marriages. We can help with that.

10. The importance of fathers continues to be defined by the struggle for a better work-life balance for moms and dads.

5 years before COVID, parents struggled to find a work-life balance.  The American workplace continues to impede moms and dads from spending as much time with their kids as they would like to. 

COVID has only made this more apparent.

More than half of the working dads in the study (52%) and 60% of working moms told researchers that finding a work-life balance was either somewhat or very difficult.

Nearly a third of dads (29%) surveyed in 2015 said they were always “feeling rushed,” and 37% of working moms reported the same.

The notion of the importance of fathers and supermoms is playing out in the American economy as I write these words.  There is a palpable fear that many moms and dads working from home are profoundly ambivalent about returning to the office. 

The importance of fathers and a secure base

“Dads” are doing better and they seem, in the aggregate, to want to continue to excel. 

But increasingly, we’ll need better more inclusive ways of de-constructing, describing, and researching two parent households.

As I mentioned before, I have an idea about how this can be re-framed and more relatable in the 21st century. Let’s start thinking about inward-oriented parents and outward-oriented parents.

Leaving gender aside, we know from attachment science that one parent creates a secure base for children from which to explore. That parent might be called the “inward-oriented parent.” In the past, this role has been ascribed to a mother but this role may be resonating with fathers more and more (and perhaps did in the past, as well, but was overlooked).

The other parent protects and provides for the secure base, acting on the outside world with appropriate, goal-seeking behavior, and leaving and returning to the secure base sustainably and predictably. 

The virtues of emotional regulation in confronting the unknown, resourcefulness, and problem-solving are modeled for the children by this second parent, because children, by necessity, must someday leave the secure base of their family of origin, navigate an uncertain world, and eventually create a new secure base with chosen intimates of their own. This parent could be called the “outward-oriented parent.”

My friend Shirley told me about a lesbian parent she knows who likes to be called “Pa.” 

I like that.  If we don’t create new words we can always reclaim old words and give them new meaning. 

At the end of the day, parenting is poetry. Perhaps “inward-oriented” and “outward-oriented” will someday be consciously understood as frames of reference employed by both parents regardless of gender.

Moms and dads shape us...because two-parent households shape us in powerful ways. A heterosexual couple is the most prevalent, but not the only form of a two-parent household.

Soon we will craft a more inclusive language for two-parent households beyond the restrictive hetero-normative notions of “mom” and “dad.” 

This will only happen when we acquire a better understanding of the common factors that make two parent households preferable for society in the long run.

At some point, perhaps 20 years from now, neuro-science will shift away from a paradigm of the importance of fathers (or mothers) because we will have a more nuanced understanding of the salient advantages of a two parent household.

Someday gender identity will merely inform our more complete understanding of human development, instead of being the hegemonic blunt instrument it is in social science today.

The importance of fathers; a tale of two dads

The importance of dads...and eating regularly...

Outside of our secure base, life with our second parent (or “dad”) can get complicated.

In preparing to write this post I had a talk with my friend Shirley. She told me how she had SO MUCH FUN with her dad as a child. 

But he was a big kid and often neglected key “responsible” parental components that would set her mother off. 

Had he been born a few generations later, he probably would have been diagnosed and treated for ADHD. 

When in her dad’s care, they would spend the day having great fun building stuff...but she hadn’t eaten all day. 

She also remembers going for a drive with dad and...

“He let me talk and talk and talk... and then we stopped and got doughnuts... but I was dressed completely inappropriately for the weather... and my teeth and hair were certainly not brushed before we left.”

Shirley reflected on her dad on this Father’s Day 2021.

“My dad’s sense of adventure was actually a very valuable contrast to my mom’s more rigid sense of right and wrong. Had they had relationship support, that positive role-modeling probably would have been even more impactful for me. Perhaps, my mom would have been able to value his spontaneity a bit more... and maybe my dad might have accepted her influence before his next impulsive move…”

Final thoughts on the importance of fathers; for those of us having a complicated father’s day

We are all dealt an existential hand of poker with our parents and families of origin. 

Some dads, like Shirley’s, mean well... but might be constrained by limitations beyond their control. 

Shirley’s husband, she is quick to point out, is an attentive and empathetic parent to their children. He offers them support, structure, and a never-ending supply of dad jokes. She feels supported by him as a co-parent too.

Other dads like mine, offer the greater gift of their absence. 

We all carry an idea of our “dad” in our heads. My father set a particularly bad example relatively early in my life. 

Instead of an idealized nostalgia for “dad”, I am left instead with a sense of gratitude that I recognized his poor role modeling for what it was. 

Fortunately, for many of you, remembering the love and lessons of your dad will evoke tender memories, and you will cherish them.

But for others, who have perhaps struggled mightily, the importance of fathers is a reminder of lessons not learned... and of a shadowy, angry presence that only loomed larger over time.

Our parents write in our wet cement with the stick of time and memory. 

It may take us a lifetime to reconcile what is tender in ourselves.

Eventually, when we’re ready, we decide who we are, and who we ultimately become. 

Still, our experience of our “dads”, and the meaning we make of it, will powerfully linger in our emotional intelligence.

The parents we had, and the parents we are...echo through time.


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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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