The Attentive Father

An involved father means better outcomes for kids.

Posted Jun 20, 2008

Scientific journals are rife with studies of the negative consequences of father absence. But the flip side-the importance of having a father around-has been widely ignored. That disparity surprised Dr. Anna Sarkadi, a physician at Uppsala University in Sweden.

She is the lead author of a newly published review of 24 studies of fathers, which finds that fathers have an important positive influence on their kids: When fathers are engaged with their children, boys have fewer behavior problems, girls have fewer psychological problems, and both show enhanced cognitive development.

Sarkadi was prompted to do the review when, as a postdoc, her adviser assigned her to do a study of children based on mothers' responses to a questionnaire. She suggested that they give the questionnaire to fathers, too. "Why?" her adviser asked. "Are they important as well?"

To answer him, she searched the scientific literature for a review of studies on fathers' contributions to their kids. She couldn't find one. Her new study, which appears in the current edition of Acta Paediatrica, fills that gap. (Her adviser, now persuaded that fathers are important, worked on it with her.)

Sarkadi found that the mere presence of a father in the home reduced aggressive behavior in the kids. But it was active and regular engagement with the kids that reduced the risks of behavioral and psychological problems and boosted cognitive development.

"Father engagement really seems to have an effect where it's most needed," she told me. "What's the most common problem among teenage girls? Depression. And boys? You have delinquents." Those are precisely the problems that father engagement helps reduce.

"Father engagement" was defined differently in various studies. So Sarkadi and her colleagues cannot say exactly what kind of engagement is important. But any kind of engagement seems to be beneficial.

Conservatives have jumped on findings, which they say support their views on the sanctity of traditional marriage between a man and a woman. But Sarkadi says that distorts her findings.

"An engaged father is important for the health and welfare of the child-not marriage per se," she said. What the study does support is more flexible paternal leave, so that fathers can be home for sick days or school events without risking their jobs.

And it has a lesson for physicians and other health professionals, Sarkadi said. "Put some focus on the father. Seek out his opinions." And stop interpreting "parent" to mean "mother."

"Too many notices to parents," Sarkadi said, "are written on pink paper."