By Gary Drevitch, published on May 6, 2014 - last reviewed on June 19, 2015
As recently as as the 1970s, psychologists and parenting experts had a ready answer to the question of how much fathers contributed to children's development: Not much.
Admittedly, science journalist Paul Raeburn writes in his new book, Do Fathers Matter?, researchers at the time had little data to prove the value of fathers—but that was because few had taken the time to look into it. "When we bother to look for the father's impact, we find it—always," Yale psychiatrist and fatherhood research pioneer Kyle Pruett told Raeburn. Ignoring dads, Pruett says, produced a field of research with "staggering blind spots."
Today we know better. The body of work that psychologists, biologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce on fatherhood is "one of the most important developments in the study of children and families," Raeburn believes, even though many findings have yet to receive wide attention.
As for his own family, Raeburn, a father of five, writes, "I'm glad to know my involvement is a good thing. But that's not why I spend time with my kids. I do it because I like it."
Following are seven discoveries about paternal influence Raeburn shares in his book, covering life from conception through adulthood:
Harvard University biologist David Haig has detected that some "imprinted" genes—those that can be identified as coming from the male or female parent—compete for resources within the womb. Some paternal genes push the fetus to extract as much nourishment and energy from the mother as possible, even to the detriment of her health, while some maternal genes seek to deliver the fetus only as much as it needs. Haig's explanation is that "maternal genes have a substantial interest in the mother's well-being and survival," while "paternal genes favor greater allocation of maternal time and effort to their particular child."
During a woman's pregnancy, there would appear to be little a father could do to affect the child. A recent University of South Florida study shows that's not the case. Infants whose fathers were absent during pregnancy were more likely to be born prematurely or with lower birth weights than those whose fathers were present. Such babies were also four times more likely to die within their first year. Even in mothers, complications of pregnancy that would seem to have no connection to male involvement, including anemia and high blood pressure, were more common when fathers were absent.
Old sitcoms showing fathers anxiously pacing in waiting rooms while their wives delivered their children were no exaggeration: From the 1930s, when most U.S. births had moved from the home to the hospital, until the late 1960s, when more men had successfully agitated to gain a place by their wives' bedsides, delivery was a women-and-professionals only affair, to the apparent detriment of everyone involved. As more men took their place in the maternity ward, women reported feeling less pain, and requests for pain medication declined. Mothers were even less likely to cry. What's more, men present for their children's birth report being more attached to their infants and more involved in their care. Letting dads in, Raeburn writes, "pays off in ways no one anticipated."
How can we gauge the importance of paternal companionship in a child's early months? In part by observing what happens when infants are deprived of it. One in 10 men experience some form of postpartum depression, Raeburn reports, limiting their ability to emotionally connect with their babies. Children of fathers with major episodes of postpartum depression appear to be eight times as likely as others to have behavior problems as they grow and 36 times as likely to have difficulty getting along with peers.
University of Oxford researchers visiting families beginning in babies' first year found that when fathers maintained a remote relationship with their infants, those children later had higher rates of aggressive behavior, no matter how their mothers had interacted with them. In a related meta-analysis of 24 studies of paternal involvement, Swedish researchers found that kids whose fathers helped care for them, played with them, and took them on outings had fewer behavioral problems in early childhood and a lower likelihood of delinquency as adolescents.
In at least one aspect of childhood—acquiring language—fathers simply matter more than mothers. For example, researchers studying parental roles in language development among poor, rural children found that a father's use of vocabulary when reading to kids at six months of age predicted their expressiveness at 15 months and their use of advanced language at age three—regardless of the mother's educational level or how she spoke to the children. The hypothesis: Since mothers spend more time with children, they're more likely to use words with which kids are most familiar, while fathers, less attuned to their children's linguistic comfort zone, introduce a wider vocabulary.
For years, evolutionary biologists have puzzled over why girls with absent or departed fathers tend to reach sexual maturation earlier and have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona studied families with divorced parents, and daughters who were at least five years apart, in which the older daughter would have had several more early years of "exposure" to a present father. He found that the younger sisters had their first periods about 11 months earlier than their older siblings did. Psychologist Sarah Hill of Texas Christian University told Raeburn that she believes a father's absence delivers girls a subconscious cue about "the mating system they are born into": Men will not stick around, so they need to find mates quickly. Their genes then effectively push the girls into early puberty. (This effect is more pronounced in families in which the absent fathers had not been a positive presence while in the home.) What's the source of this phenomenon? Ellis believes it could be a father's scent. In animal experiments, there is evidence that sustained exposure to a father's pheromones can slow down puberty, although that hypothesis remains largely untested in humans.