Do fathers matter? Are they anything more than the sperm donors and ATMs modern society tells them they are? Or the deadbeats, duds and doofusses presented in pop culture?
Dads get roughed up in the media. According to a survey of fathers, “Three quarters of dads say they are responsible for their child’s emotional well-being, while only 20% of dads see this role reflected in media.”
But according to a new book, society discounts the importance of fathers at its peril. In “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” author Paul Raeburn looks at recent psychological studies from researchers at Texas Christian University and the University of Arizona and found that fathers have more of an effect on teenage pregnancy, teenage delinquency and drug use than mothers do.
Raeburn addresses the need for society to value the role of fathers by starting off with alarming statistics that show the increasing number of children who grow up without a father in the home. According to Raeburn, data shows “one-quarter to one-half of the American children of divorced parents never, or almost never, see their fathers.” From that framework, Raeburn delves into several major studies that suggest society suffers when fathers aren’t around.
Raeburn cites David Popenoe of Rutgers University who calls the decline of fatherhood “a major force behind many of the most disturbing problems that plague American society.” In Popenoe’s list he includes:
- crime and juvenile delinquency
- premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock births to teenagers
- deteriorating educational achievement
- substance abuse
- alienation among adolescents
- a growing number of women and children in poverty
Popenoe went even further to say evidence points out “on the whole, two parents-- a father and a mother--are better for the child than one parent.”
Popenoe isn’t alone in his findings. The advocacy non-profit National Fatherhood Initiative agrees that the closer teenagers felt to their fathers, the less likely they would be to steal, run away, act disorderly or violently.
But just having a father around isn’t enough to deter some behaviors. Psychologists found that it was even more important for fathers to be supportive of their children, especially when it came to daughters.
Psychologists Sarah E. Hill and Danielle J. DelPriore at Texas Christian University found interesting results for the relationship of fathers and daughters. Social experiments they conducted in 2013 found that risky sexual behavior was directly linked to a girl’s relationship or lack thereof with her father. Their study found that when a girl had an attentive and caring father, she was less likely to act out sexually than when she had a disengaged or unattentive father.
The study asked girls to reflect on a time when their father was supportive of them and separately, a time when their father wasn’t. In between each question was a series of questions related to risky behavior. According to Raeburn:
“Young women became ‘more sexually unrestricted’ after recalling an incident in which their father was disengaged, Hill explained. “They reported having more favorable attitudes toward short-term sexual encounters; they didn’t see love as necessary for sex to occur.” Further experiments showed that father disengagement didn’t change women’s views of other kinds of risky behavior; they weren't more likely to ride a bike without a helmet. The effect was limited to sex.”
Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Arizona found the same findings in his earlier studies, which Hill and DelPriore drew from. Ellis found that girls who had close relationships with their fathers in their formative years were less likely to engage in sex at an early age and were less likely to experience pregnancy in their teen years.
On that note, boys were also influenced by their fathers when it came to acting out sexually. Research from Yale found that teen fathers often passed this trait to their sons. Raeburn wrote: “Indeed as Sipsma noted, men are an important but neglected group in reproductive health.”
Perhaps the most fascinating thing in Raeburn’s book is his description of what happens when a child looks at his father’s face. Research found that it “elicited activity in the caudate, a deep brain structure associated with feelings of love.” When a child looked at the mother’s face it did not elicit the same response in the brain. Scientists don’t know why this happens but findings like those described in “Do Father’s Matter?” reveal fathers provide a special role in children’s lives that can’t be explained away or substituted.
One conclusion is clear: Fathers have a profound influence on children, something the media does not address, whether it be the out of touch, ‘normal’ dad in sitcoms, or the news media’s lack of talking about fatherhood in general.