What a Son Needs From His Dad

Examining what the research tells us.

Posted Mar 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan


  • Boys rely on their fathers for guidance, and a model for how to behave in the world and in relationships.
  • Research suggests that positive time spent with their fathers can reduce the likelihood of boys becoming anxious, depressed, or aggressive.
  • Boys also crave warmth, affection, and tenderness from their fathers.

Since this is my last blog post in the four-part "what a child needs from their parent" series, I wanted to briefly address some of the most common comments and emails I've been getting.

  1. Not all kids are raised by two parents, heterosexual parents, or parents at all. These articles are just a window into the more readily available biological parent-child relationship research.
  2. If a child cannot or does not get one of their "needs" met, that does not imply that irreparable harm has been done. Each of these "needs" is one small factor that has been statistically shown to benefit child development within the sample that the researchers studied.  
  3. The bolded headers are my best attempt at boiling down an entire scientific publication into a "skimmable tidbit" – please see the citations at the bottom of each post for more context!
  4. The findings I report are not my personal opinion, but rather a paragraph summary of the data reported in the study cited therein.
  5. These posts are not intended to be comprehensive summaries of 100% of the parenting literature, but rather highlight interesting and/or recent findings that connect parent-child relationships using gender as a variable.

With that in mind, let's explore the empirical evidence related to what a son needs from his dad while growing up. (Also see What a Son Needs From His Mom, What a Daughter Needs From Her Mom, and What a Daughter Needs From Her Dad)

An upstanding, law-abiding example

Like many other behaviors, when it comes to illegal activity, the apple doesn't seem to fall too far from the tree. According to longitudinal research [3] on thousands of fathers and their sons, men who break the law are far more likely to have fathers who also broke the law. For sons of law-abiding fathers, only 4% were found to be convicted of more than one delinquent act. In contrast, for sons of law-breaking fathers, about 40% committed more than one delinquent act.

The authors of this study are careful to caution that a wide variety of socio-cultural factors play an environmental role in increasing or decreasing the likelihood of delinquent behavior. After all, about half of the sons of fathers convicted of criminal offenses were never convicted of a crime themselves. Thus, fathers' examples do not necessarily dictate sons' behavior, but there is a correlation.

"The Talk"

Of course, any trusted adult feasibly could provide "The Talk" to boys of an appropriate age, but research shows that for boys with a father in the home, this conversation is typically facilitated by the father [2]. However, it's unfortunate that fathers report a significantly lower sense of self-efficacy when it comes to having conversations with their children about sex [6]. Researchers fear that this insecurity about their ability to communicate with their son about sex will naturally limit the amount of information and guidance that the father provides. In fact, evidence suggests that parents feel less competent in explaining to their son how to say "no" to sex (!) [6]. Surely, we can all agree that children and adults of any gender should receive the clear message: you can say "no" to unwanted sexual activity.

Although mom could, of course, have conversations about sex with her son, dads typically take the reins in heterosexual two-parent households [2]. Dads: be bold! Have "The Talk" and try not to view it as a "once and done" conversation. Instead, keep the dialogue open and make sure your son feels safe learning from and consulting with you when it comes to sexual matters.

Parental monitoring, communication, and involvement

To be fair, basic parenting skills competence is going to be a positive factor in a child's life regardless of their or their parent(s) gender. But the reason I included this "need" is because I found an interesting, recent (2020) study focusing on the efficacy of a parent-training program for nonresident (meaning they do not live with their son), African American fathers and their 8 to 12-year-old sons [5]. This is rare in parenting research because it explores an important niche where typical studies (which often sample white, middle-class, resident mothers) fall short. Researchers found that, even for these fathers who did not live with their son, parent training improved sons' perceptions of their father's parenting competence and increased sons' intentions to avoid violence in the future. Dads can be an important part of a coparenting team – even if they're not living in the same home as their child. (For more, see Coparenting With an Ex: Battleground vs. Common Ground.)


It's been well-established that positive parenting behaviors and tactics are protective factors for kids against the onset of externalizing (e.g., disobedience, aggression, etc.) and internalizing (e.g., anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders) symptoms for children of all ages.

In a recent study [4] examining these protective factors, married fathers who reported frequently shopping, playing a sport, going to entertainment events, playing games, cooking, and/or watching television with their children were more likely to have children who did not exhibit externalizing or internalizing symptoms. Interestingly, the effect a father's time spent with his child has on protecting against these symptoms is more powerful for sons than daughters, although it remains present regardless of the child's gender.

Warmth, affection, and tenderness

I hope I don't need to try too hard to convince dads to show warmth and tenderness to their sons. But in case you needed extra motivation, here's a fascinating empirical finding: children of dads who treated them affectionately as an infant scored significantly higher on standardized measures of cognitive ability (measured by reading and math skills) at age 4. Researchers studied a sample of African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian participants, and the finding remained true regardless of ethnicity.

New dads: if your baby son's cuteness wasn't enough, here's another reason to give him cuddles. In fact, dad's frequency of kissing and hugging his son at two years old was one of the factors loading onto the construct of "warmth" that positively predicted son's reading and math scores.

For more, please see:

Facebook image: Rido/Shutterstock


Baker, C. E. (2017). Father-son relationships in ethnically diverse families: Links to boys’ cognitive and social emotional development in preschool. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(8), 2335-2345. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0743-3

Flores, D., & Barroso, J. (2017). 21st century parent-child sex communication in the united states: A process review. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(4-5), 532-548. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2016.1267693

Marieke van de Rakt, Nieuwbeerta, P., & Nan Dirk de Graaf. (2008). LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: The relationships between conviction trajectories of fathers and their sons and daughters. British Journal of Criminology, 48(4), 538-556. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azn014

Temmen, C. D., & Crockett, L. J. (2020). The importance of father involvement for adolescent internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, https://doi.org/10.1037/men0000322

Thomas, A., Assari, S., Susperreguy, M. I., Hill, D. E., & Caldwell, C. H. (2020). Age-specific mechanism of the effects of family based interventions with african american nonresident fathers and sons. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 29(12), 3509-3520. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-020-01848-5

Wilson, E. K., & Koo, H. P. (2010). Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters: Gender differences in factors associated with parent-child communication about sexual topics. Reproductive Health, 7(1), 31-31. https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-4755-7-31