The assumption is—and has been—that mothers matter more than fathers to a child’s health and development. As a result, the image of fathers and their contributions to their children’s lives is more negative than positive, more myth and stereotype than fact.
Dismissing dads as essential to children’s wellbeing has prevailed decade after decade. In his 1945 edition of his book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock, wrote, “Of course, I don’t mean that the father has to give just as many bottles or change just as many diapers as the mother. But it’s fine for him to do these things occasionally. He might make the formula on Sunday.”
The stereotyping of dads as inconsequential lingers even in the face of solid research that shows the innuendos, labels and jabs are wrong. Once society latches on to a notion, it is difficult to move to new, more accurate thinking.
In his new book, Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked, Paul Raeburn reminds us of Michael Lamb, one of the primary advocates of research on fathers. Lamb “showed babies and fathers become attached in the same way—and at the same time developmentally—that mothers and babies do.”
According to a Pew Research Center report, the number of stay at home dads who care for their children has jumped significantly over the last two decades.Nonetheless, the prevailing idea that fathers play only a supporting role persists. For instance, in a series of commercials for Procter & Gamble that ran during the Olympics about the athletes who were competing, the tag line was, “Thank you, Mom.” “Fathers’ contributions were being erased even in sports, where stereotypes would suggest that they might be the more important parent,” Raeburn points out.
Raeburn’s exploration of the scientific evidence concludes that fathers have a profound influence and, in some instances, fathers are indeed shown to be more important than mothers:
- Fathers make unique contributions to language development in their children; fathers actually matter more in this sense. When fathers use more words with preschool children during play, children have more advanced language skills a year later.
- Children whose fathers play with them, read to them, take them on outings, and help care for them have fewer behavioral problems in their early school years and a lesser likelihood of delinquency as adolescents.
- When fathers are absent, there is a “robust association between father absence—both physical and psychological—and accelerated reproductive development and risk-taking in daughters.”
Linda Nielsen, professor of educational and adolescent psychology and the author of Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research & Issues, underscores this influence: “The well-fathered daughter is also the most likely to have relationships with men that are emotionally intimate and fulfilling. During the college years, these daughters are more likely than poorly-fathered women to turn to their boyfriends for emotional comfort and support and they are less likely to be “talked into” having sex. As a consequence of having made wiser decisions in regard to sex and dating, these daughters generally have more satisfying, more long-lasting marriages. What is surprising is not that fathers have such an impact on their daughters’ relationships with men, but that they generally have more impact than mothers do.”
Alyssa Croft and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia asked the question, “Do Parents’ Gender Roles at Home Predict Children’s Aspirations? Clearly they do. Here again, the emphasis was the effect of the father on his daughters. Their conclusion: Fathers who help with household chores are more likely to raise daughters who aspire to less traditional, and potentially higher paying, careers.
As more attention is paid to fathers’ roles in their children’s lives, we can only hope that the bad rap dads have been getting as more irrelevant than relevant dissipates. Do fathers matter? For sure, and Raeburn’s deep dive into the history, science, biology and psychology of fatherhood illuminates fathers’ substantial contributions that until now were fairly well-kept secrets.
We can no longer ignore or dismiss the important role that fathers play in their sons and daughters’ lives—starting as early as during a partner’s pregnancy. Raeburn makes a convincing and eye-opening argument that fathers deserve to share the stage in every way with mothers who have long held top ranking stemming from the “sacred mother-infant bond” as Kyle Pruett, a Yale University psychiatrist, put it. Pruett rightly believes that not looking at the impact of fathers and children on one another has given the entire field…a myopic and worrisomely distorted view of child development, a view with staggering blind spots.”
Raeburn has succeeded in opening our eyes.
Croft, Alyssa and Toni Schmader, Katharina Block & Andrew Scott Baron. “The Second Shift Reflected in the Second Generation: Do Parents’ Gender Roles at Home Predict Children’s Aspirations? Psychological Science, submitted March 14, 2014. http://news.ubc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/FULL-submitted-version-PSCI-13-1163-R2.pdf
Livingston, Gretchen. "Growing Number of Dads Home with the Kids." Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends Project, June 5, 2014. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/06/05/growing-number-of-dads-home-with-the-kids/
Nielsen, Linda. “How Dads Affect Their Daughters into Adulthood.” Institute of Family Studies, blog, June 3, 2014. http://family-studies.org/how-dads-affect-their-daughters-into-adulthood/
Raeburn, Paul. Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Spock, Benjamin. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1945.
Copyright @ 2014 Susan Newman, Ph.D.
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