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Every Day Is Dad's Day

Pondering the reality and importance of fathering. Why dads matter just as much as moms do.

I'd like to pause a bit on fathers—not to rehash the goopy sentiments of the day, but to ponder the reality and importance of fathering.

Let us understand at the outset that talking about the value of fathers does not diminish the crucial role of mothers, among whom I number. Nor is it a put-down of single mothers. Many do a heroic job raising their kids.

But most kids yearn for two parents. And most parents would agree the job needs more than one adult. There's a growing amount of science to back up the idea that the presence of a father has powerful and apparently unique effects on children.

"There's no substitute for a father's presence," says Randall Flanery, a pediatric psychologist at Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute. Oh yes, Flanery is also the father of 10 children.

He ticks off the benefits to children of having a dad around. Studies show that the risk of juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, sexual abuse, early pregnancy and dropping out of high school is six times higher for children whose biological fathers are not part of their lives.

Young children may look at the absence of their father as a personal rejection. "They see not having dad around as proof there's something wrong with them," Flanery explains.

Even in families that have a dad, it's more important for him to be at the weekly soccer games than for him to be working late so the family can afford a fancy vacation every two years. "Luxuries aren't really what a kid needs and wants."

Dads become especially critical during adolescence. Generally, says Flanery, "fathers are better at setting limits with teenage boys. I've seen it in my practice. Teenage boys, who are on the brink of losing control, calm down quite a bit by having their dads show up. It can keep things from escalating further."

Important as fathers are to sons, they may be even more important to the development and behavior of teenage daughters. Girls are twice as likely as boys to become depressed after puberty.

Flanery contends that the mood changes are often linked to estrangement from Dad. Girls are "looking to Dad to give them a clue about guys. But they miss out if Dad isn't there."

In addition, the quality of the relationship between a teenage daughter and her father is predictive of the quality of a committed relationship she will have in her young adult years.

And this may be the most amazing finding of all: girls who grow up without their biological father are likely to physically mature faster, reach puberty earlier than their peers, and get pregnant early.

How does father absence accelerate puberty in daughters? It's not clear. Early puberty may be a response to high rates of conflict and stress in divorced and blended families.

Or early menstruation may result from the presence of a non-related male in the home, in the case of remarriage and blended families. The body can detect the presence of a genetically unrelated "strange male" in the immediate vicinity, and that seems to trigger sexual readiness. The earlier and longer the exposure to stepfather or other unrelated male adult in the household, the stronger the effect, reports psychologist Bruce Ellis, of his groundbreaking studies on development and family structure.

The same studies show that puberty is delayed by the presence of the biological father in the household. And the more that fathers interact with their daughters when young, the more puberty is delayed.

Aside from the risk of early pregnancy, the trouble with early physical maturation is the likelihood that girls will not be emotionally mature enough to cope with male attention as a result of their precocious sexuality.

The message is that dads count in ways we never imagined before.

Flanery offers this advice to dad: "Putting yourself in the field to play is infinitely more worthwhile than not doing it at all. Just being there is often the best you can do and truly that's plenty.

After all, some of the most effective parenting comes when you can't plan on it.