The Unique Impact of Dads

Fathers' style of play helps build boundaries, resilience, and empathy.

Posted Mar 31, 2016

Source: fotolia/inesbazdar

When it comes to parenting, dads sometimes report that they feel left out or that their opinion "doesn't count." But it may be that expectations of Dad becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Both human and animal studies suggest that fathers step up their role in child rearing when they know they're needed, and they become less involved—or disengage completely—when they feel unneeded.1 Research also shows that when dads do get involved, children tend to better in school, form more trusting relationships, and enjoy better physical and mental health.2

It makes intuitive sense that children do better with two engaged parents. But in fact, it turns out that fathers impart unique contributions to development. For example, research suggests that while moms are somewhat more likely to set boundaries, dads are more likely to enforce boundaries and consequences—and to not feel guilty for doing so. Additionally, that the amount of time a father spends with his child directly correlates with the child’s capacity for empathy as an adult,3 and these two findings may be linked. As gender studies expert Dr. Warren Farrell explains, “Teaching the child to treat boundaries seriously teaches the child to respect the rights and needs of others. Thinking of another’s needs creates empathy.”

Moreover, the type of roughhousing and physical play that dads tend to engage in teaches children social and cognitive skills. Farrell writes, 

“[Dad] uses a different style of play—one that encourages risk taking and competition, pushing the child’s boundaries of physical and mental skills, leading the child to win more and lose more (and, therefore, laugh and cry more); and, through the play, he is teaching the child to improve her or his skills and focus, and to deal with losing without cheating or becoming vindictive or violent.”4 

These attributes—empathy, frustration tolerance, focus, and respect for boundaries—represent many of the skills today's children need most. They are the same skills that have become harder to build in our immediate-gratification world, the same skills that are sorely lacking in children whose nervous systems are overstimulated from daily screen-time, and the same skills that remain woefully underdeveloped from low levels of physical exertion and face-to-face interaction in the real world.   

Thus, a father’s involvement in discipline, in establishing and enforcing screen-time limits, in play, and in bonding provides benefits that go way beyond just having another warm body around to do work. Dads need to know (and hear) they're needed and valued.

We all would do well to be more aware of dads’ worth.

Adapted from Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.


1. Jeffrey Masson, The Emperor’s Embrace Reflections on Animal Families and Fatherhood (New York: Atria Books, 2014), 38-44.
2.Warren Farrell, Father and Child Reunion: How to Bring the Dads We Need to the Children We Love (Tarcher, 2001), 29-36.
3. R. Koestner, C. Franz, and J. Weinberger, “The Family Origins of Empathic Concern: A 26-Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, no. 4 (April 1990): 709–17.
4. Farrell, Father and Child Reunion, 31, 55-56.

About the Author

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. is an integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, the author of Reset Your Child's Brain, and an expert on the effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system.  

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