Fathers and Kids

A child-development expert (and four-time dad) looks inside this special relationship.
Feb 06, 2013



Fathers and Kids

Feb 06, 2013

It was my fourth time through the pre-natal class cycle. Though obviously not a new father, I did not want Marsha to go alone (we'd always loved it before), and I learned decades ago that one can't over-do preparation for parenthood. As a child psychiatrist with a special interest in fathering, I was also very curious to see how the newer dads were coming along these days — had we made any progress in opening the nurturing domain to men?


My answer came quickly. During a break in the first class, Chaz, a "pregnant dad" as he introduced himself, sought me out to ask, "Do you really think dads matter all that much at this stage? My dad never changed a diaper, but he's my hero to this day."


"So then, why are you here?" I asked him.


After a thoughtful pause, he answered, "I'm here to learn what to do with my kid. I can't believe it wouldn't have made me even closer to him if he'd cared for me — really known me — from the beginning." In a surprise ending to our brief conversation he added as he walked away, "...and my wife thinks it's sexy."


So there you have it. Competent, involved fathering matters to children, mothers, and men. Thirty years of clinical research into all aspects of fathering have brought us to this intriguing conclusion: Fathers that do mother, matter to their children — a lot.


How Kids Benefit from Time with Dad
When men are involved in the lives of their children enough to really know them, to play a role in their physical and emotional well-being — from changing diapers to pediatric visits to facilitating playdates — their children benefit across the whole horizon of growth and development. In terms of behavioral advantages, these children are:

  • Less likely to be involved with juvenile justice
  • More likely to stay in school
  • More likely to be older when they have their first sexual experience
  • Less likely to depend on aggressive conflict resolution

The benefits, however, don't stop with behavioral stability. They are also obvious when we look at how well-fathered kids perform in school and jobs. Such kids demonstrate:

  • More overall verbal competence and early literacy
  • Higher math competence, in girls especially
  • Higher grade completion and income overall

And as if that weren't evidence enough, we have also seen that kids who enjoy high levels of involvement from their dads while growing up exhibit greater problem-solving competence and stress tolerance, less gender stereotyping among their friends, greater empathy, and moral sensitivity.


Exactly how this all comes about is yet another story. Men show hormonal and brain changes pre- and post-natally that indicate to researchers that preparation for, and reaction to, fatherhood is a far more comprehensive experience biologically and emotionally than we dreamed just a few decades before. I have a strong sense, however, that this is just the beginning of understanding that magical labor and delivery moment when 'it' hits dad right between the eyes that his life has changed as profoundly as, if differently from, the mother's.


Benefits to Moms and Marriage
What about the mom? Does fathering matter to her? More or less than it mattered to her mother? My grown daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, both (terrific) mothers of young sons, grew up during one of the most accelerated rate-of-change eras in the history of female development. One important lesson they have learned along this amazing journey shows itself proudly in terms of their expectations for, and respect of, the very active roles they expect their husbands to play in the lives of their children. Our question again: Does this matter?


Decades of sobering research on the changes when partners become parents alerts us to this perpetual truth; having babies isn't easy on marriages. Dips in marital satisfaction after the blessed event are quite predictable, can last for years, and consequently are well-worth preparing for, even in pre-natal classes. (Though I have never heard it discussed!) Can having an involved father influence this dip? I am proud to say that research that my wife and I are conducting, with our colleagues Carolyn and Phil Cowan from UC Berkeley, is offering fresh insight into this ancient problem.


Our early results offer the first proof of its kind that having an engaged, involved father lowers the common feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression that can plague newer parents in particular. We have also shown that when couples receive support to ensure that fathers are positively engaged, they report lower levels of parental and couple stress and anxiety. Some early data about father-engaged young children is also eye-opening: They seem to be more comfortable and less aggressive in group care.


What Dads Feel
But what does fathering mean to men? Again, the research of the last three decades may not be widely known, but it speaks with one voice: Becoming a father is a good thing in the lives of men. This is what we know, to date, about how men's lives and behavior changes when they father:

  • Men live longer when they father (a surprise to most men)
  • They change jobs less frequently; they divorce less often and enjoy longer marriages
  • They die less frequently from accidents or suicide
  • They enjoy higher levels of health
  • They take greater responsibility for relationship maintenance as a whole

My own father, a gifted preacher and minister to a large midwestern church, reminded his ambitious, multi-tasking middle son (me) frequently of a conversation with an old farmer over whose funeral he'd presided when he was a young pastor. This proud father of four said he had no regrets over not working harder or being more successful in his life, only that his livestock knew him better than his children.


Over the last three decades, I have spent long hours teaching young college and medical students. This has given me the opportunity to hear them articulate their dreams for the future, and how they plan to make the world a better place. The belief these young men and women express in the value and necessity of involving men positively in the lives of their children is inspiring. Let's help them do it. They are right on this one.

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