The Significance of a Father’s Influence

Is there any real evidence that dads really have a uniquely important impact in the lives of their children? Our culture seems to place little value on the role of fathers. I see evidence of this everywhere, from pop culture and media to government policy. My own experience and belief system tell me that fatherhood is important, but I'd like to be able to explain exactly why this is the case. Can you help me?

Your intuitions are right on the mark. We can cite a host of reputable studies to prove it.

Dr. David Popenoe, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the National Marriage Project, has provided us with a good summary and overview of the subject. Here’s what he has to say:

Fathers are far more than just “second adults” in the home. Involved fathers – especially biological fathers – bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring. They provide protection and economic support and male role models. They have a parenting style that is significantly different from that of a mother and that difference is important in healthy child development.David Popenoe, Life Without Father, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 163.

One of the most vital aspects of a dad’s contribution to the lives of his kids lies precisely in what Dr. Popenoe calls his “significantly different parenting style.” Men and women are different. As a result mothers and fathers parent their children differently.

Dads, for instance, love their children “more dangerously.” That’s because they play “rougher” and are more likely to encourage risk-taking. They provide kids with a broader diversity of social experiences. They also introduce them to a wider variety of methods of dealing with life. They tend to stress rules, justice, fairness, and duty in discipline. In this way, they teach children the objectivity and consequences of right and wrong. They give kids insight into the world of men. They prepare them for the challenges of life and demonstrate by example the meaning of respect between the sexes. In connection with this last point, research indicates that a married father is substantially less likely to abuse his wife or children than men in any other category.

Fathers encourage competition, engendering independence. Mothers promote equity, creating a sense of security. Dads emphasize conceptual communication, which helps kids expand their vocabulary and intellectual capacities. Moms major in sympathy, care, and help, thus demonstrating the importance of relationships. Dads tend to see their child in relation to the rest of the world. Moms tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their child. Neither style of parenting is adequate in and of itself. Taken together, they balance each other out and equip the up-and-coming generation with a healthy, well-rounded approach to life.

Where’s the evidence for these assertions? Obviously, we can’t go into great detail here. This is a vast field of study. But we can offer a few examples of some of the relevant research:

  • 82% of studies on father involvement and child well-being published since 1980 found “significant associations between positive father involvement and offspring well-being…”Paul R. Amato and Fernando Rivera, “Paternal Involvement and Children’s Behavior Problems,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 375-384.
  • In an analysis of over 100 studies on parent-child relationships, it was found that having a loving and nurturing father was as important for a child’s happiness, well-being, and social and academic success as having a loving and nurturing mother. Some studies even indicated father-love was a stronger contributor to some important positive child well-being outcomes.Ronald P. Rohner and A. Veneziano, “The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence,” Review of General Psychology 5.4 (2001): 382-405.
  • According to child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, a father’s more active play style and comparatively slower response to a toddler or infant experiencing frustration serve to promote problem-solving competencies and independence in the child.Kyle D. Pruett, Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p. 41-42.
  • In the words of Dr. Pruett, “positive father care is associated with more pro-social and positive moral behavior in boys and girls.”Pruett, 2000, p. 52. This is borne out by research from the University of Pennsylvania which indicates that children who feel a closeness and warmth with their father are twice as likely to enter college, 75 percent less likely to have a child in their teen years, 80 percent less likely to be incarcerated and half as likely to show various signs of depression.Frank Furstenberg and Kathleen Harris, “When and Why Fathers Matter: Impacts of Father Involvement on Children of Adolescent Mothers,” in Young Unwed Fathers: Changing Roles and Emerging Policies, R. Lerman and T. Ooms, eds. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
  • In a 26-year-long study, researchers found that the number one factor in developing empathy in children was father involvement. Fathers spending regular time alone with their children translated into children who became compassionate adults.Richard Koestner, et al., “The Family Origins of Empathic Concern: A Twenty-Six Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58 (1990): 709-717.

We’ve only scratched the surface, of course, but you can see where the evidence is taking us. The best studies demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that fathers play an important and irreplaceable role in healthy child development. This means that your hunches are right and the messages we’re receiving from the media, the culture, and government policy are wrong.

The implication is clear. Those of us who are “in the know” need to do everything we can to get this information out to the general public as quickly as possible. If it’s true that father involvement has so many positive effects on kids’ lives, then, as sociologist W. Jean Yeung has said, “The fact that this benefit is here should raise concerns for those who do not have these resources.”

If you’d like to discuss this subject at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family’s counselors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone.


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Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity & Femininity

What a Difference a Daddy Makes: The Indelible Imprint a Dad Leaves on His Daughter’s Life

The Vital Role of Fathering

The Power of Fathers

The Husband and Father’s Role

The Involved Father

The Fatherhood Mandate


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