Data on the Difference Dads Make

My childhood in western Kansas “middle of nowhere” country was more privileged than I could have possibly understood at the time. Everybody I knew had a father, most of them seemed pretty awesome, and mine was the best of them all.

But fathers are disappearing, says Paul Raeburn in his fascinating little book Do Fathers Matter? What Science Tells Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked.

Fewer American fathers are participating in the lives of their children now than at any time since the United States began keeping records.

Raeburn’s book is a fascinating summary of psychological and sociological research paired with the findings of neuroscience and evolutionary biology about the results of father behavior.

It’s refreshingly devoid of political commentary and emotional handwringing, preferring to let science answer the question its title poses.

Raeburn himself is a father with three grown children from his first marriage and two from his second. “If fathers don’t matter,” he quips, “I’ve made poor use of my time over the past few decades.”

If they do, we have ground to recover.

Paternal situations vary, of course, and many of them can’t be helped. Drugs, alcohol, incarceration, and even a mother’s failure to disclose her pregnancy steal fathers from children who may wonder into adulthood why their dads didn’t “want” them. Work, death and divorce can separate fathers and children, too.

But everyone interested in improving child outcomes will want to see the science Raeburn uncovers. And then they’ll wonder what they can do about it.

A generation ago there wasn’t much research on “the difference dads make.” Mothers are so essential to child outcomes that researchers focused on them. But a “new science of fatherhood” reveals that dads (absent, present, married or unmarried) make a profound difference (for better or worse) at every stage in a child’s life.

That difference begins at conception, when a father’s genetic makeup, health (including whether or not he abused substances) and age at the time of his child’s conception impact his offspring. Dads also influence pregnancy outcomes: when they’re involved and supportive, moms are healthier and babies less likely to be born prematurely.

One study showed that kids even transitioned more smoothly into kindergarten when their dads were supportive during pregnancy, even if they didn’t remain around afterwards.

Involved dads do more than that to boost child outcomes.

Neuroscientists have discovered that the rough-and-tumble way dads tend to play has a positive effect on children’s brain development, preparing them to take the kind of risks that up their chances for personal growth. (Who knew all that tossing and tickling could pay off on the basketball court or impact a choice for college?)

Kids with involved dads also have larger vocabularies than children who don’t, and that’s a strong predictor of reading readiness and school success.

And dads are profoundly important during adolescence.

Raeburn cites numerous studies that prove it, including one in which girls who felt close to their fathers were less likely to become pregnant during their teens, and one indicating that boys with fond memories of their dads tend to become resilient, “more likely to handle the day-to-day stresses of adulthood.”

Raeburn’s book offers much more. Its conclusion is inescapable:

Fathers matter, and they matter a lot.

As a counselor of young children, I’m invested in giving kids the best chance possible for a bright future. That often means helping them manage the consequences of decisions adults in their lives have made.

But it’s important to note that families without fathers are emphatically not “doomed to failure.”

Raburn will make you grateful for:

  • The generosity of mentors and family members who step in to help kids lacking the daily involvement of a dad.
  • Single moms whose heroic effort helps their children beat the odds.
  • Social programs providing a safety net to families who’ve fallen into poverty because dad, for whatever reason, isn’t “in the picture.”

Still, the evidence Raeburn uncovers suggests a cultural imperative to reverse the trend of the disappearing dad. Kids who resist crime, addiction and dependence are essential for a flourishing culture. Children who become compassionate, productive adults improve everybody’s future. Depriving kids of the particular strengths of the masculine parent at his best has been a grave error with serious social costs.

Raeburn has me wondering how many men have any inkling that involved fatherhood is such an important gift, not merely to their own offspring but to our entire society.

Do Fathers Matter? deserves a wide, reflective audience, ready to act on behalf of today’s children.

And this Father’s Day, every good dad deserves our deepest thanks.

I was lucky enough to have one, so I’m going to begin by thanking the man who used to tickle me and my brothers until we howled and wriggled from his grasp, only to return moments later, giggling and begging for more.

Reads & Other Seeds

This post is an updated version of a guest commentary that appeared in The Pueblo Chieftain. Know someone who would enjoy it? Please share Sparrowfare!

Sparrowfare also honors fatherhood in Crow Call: Beautiful Book for Fathers and Daughters and Celebrate Strong Dads with a Song and a Slice of Enemy Pie (and Learn to Love Your Enemies Too).

At last! Season 2 of Kevin Heider’s Song & Story podcast has begun. The intro episode, My Sweet Elinore is a beautiful example of a father’s love for his daughter. Seriously brought a tear to my eye. Listen here and subscribe! I never miss Song & Story. My heart and my music collection are richer for it.

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash.