The Science of Dad: Engaged Fathers Help Kids Flourish

Father with daughter on the beach.
Dads are very important for their kids' future achievement and happiness, studies show. (Image credit: Tom Wang, Shutterstock)

Despite the fact that men are increasingly involved in family life, stereotypes about dad still persist: He's bumbling. He's immature. He's never seen a dirty diaper he'd volunteer to change.

Yeah, right.

Research is increasingly revealing that dads make a big difference in their kids' lives — and (surprise, surprise), they're perfectly capable of being competent parents. For example, dads can recognize their baby's cries as well as moms, and in some cases, a father-child relationship can influence that kid's life to a greater extent than the mother-child bond.

"Given the rising role of women as breadwinners in a large minority of families, it's important to realize that men bring more than money to the parenting enterprise," said W. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies marriage and families. [History's 12 Most Doting Dads]

The involved dad

The bumbling dad stereotype is a favorite caricature for marketers. In March 2012, the diaper brand Huggies ran an ad campaign that called alone time with dad "the ultimate test" for their diapers — a phrasing taken to mean that fathers were too dumb to handle diaper changing. The brand quickly learned that modern dads don't take kindly to such implications. After an outcry and an online petition, Huggies pulled the ads and altered them to be more dad-friendly.

The incident illustrates how fatherhood, like motherhood, has changed with time. Mothers still take on a disproportionate amount of child care and household tasks compared with dads, but fathers are catching up. As of 2011, fathers spent seven hours a week on child care and 10 hours a week on housework, according to the Pew Research Center. That's approximately half of what mothers do, but it's a huge leap from 1965, when dads did only two-and-a-half hours a week of child care and four hours of housework.   

Increasingly involved dads are good news for kids, studies suggest. For example, dads who nurture and play with their babies have kids who grow up to have higher IQs, according to a 2006 report by the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect. These benefits extend into the teen years: In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education found that kids with highly involved biological fathers were 43 percent more likely than kids without involved biological dads to earn mostly A's in school. (Other studies of fatherhood suggest that stepdads, adoptive fathers and other father figures can provide the same kinds of benefits for kids as biological dads.)

And feel free to throw stereotypes about maternal instinct besting dad's parenting skills out the window. A paper published in April in the journal Nature Communications revealed that it's experience, not gender, that cues a parent into his or her child's voice. As long as men spent at least four hours a day with their baby, they were as good as moms at telling the difference between their infant's cry and those of other babies.

A father's touch

Dads influence their kids' lives particularly strongly in four areas, Wilcox, who co-edited the book "Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives" (Columbia University Press, 2013), told LiveScience. One is how they play with their kids: Dads are more likely to roughhouse than moms, a style of play that helps teach kids to control their bodies and emotions. Fathers are also more likely to encourage their kids to embrace risk, both on the playground and in life. This influences the ambitions of children over the long run. Dads who believe in gender equality, for example, are more likely than dads with sexist beliefs to have daughters with high career ambitions, according to research presented at the 2013 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January. In fact, dads' gender beliefs were more influential on their daughters than moms' beliefs.

A strong relationship with dads protects kids, too, Wilcox said. Children with involved fathers are less likely to become victims of sexual assault or abuse. A good relationship with dad can also influence a child's sexual behavior. Teens close with their fathers start having sex later, on average, an October 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found. Teens listen to their dads, even if it may not seem like it, the study also found: Fathers who approved of early sexual activity were more likely to have sexually active teens compared with dads who disapproved. (The study included stepfathers, biological fathers, adoptive fathers and even male "father figures" such as uncles under the umbrella of dads.)

Finally, Wilcox said, dads tend to lay down firmer discipline than moms. Mothers discipline children more, he said, because they spend more time with kids, but their strategies tend to allow for more negotiation and bent rules. Neither strategy is better or worse, Wilcox said, but it benefits kids to be exposed to both. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

Dads are often cited for their influence on their sons, but the father-daughter relationship is extremely important, too, said Linda Nielsen, a Wake Forest University Psychologist and author of "Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research & Issues" (Routledge, 2012).

"The father is generally going to have a greater impact on his daughter's ambitions, assertiveness, the kinds of attitudes she needs to get ahead in school and to get ahead in the world of work and to get ahead financially," Nielsen told LiveScience. That's because, even as more and more moms work outside the home, fathers are still more likely to have jobs requiring assertiveness, negotiation skills and leadership, she said.

As for how to build the kind of father-child relationship that will help kids get ahead, Nielsen recommends lots of quality time and encourages moms to get on board. Mothers often act as "gatekeepers" in how close a child, especially a daughter, gets with her dad. If mom is hurt when a daughter wants to confide in dad, it can stall that father-daughter dynamic, Nielsen said.

Meanwhile, dads should open up to daughters about personal matters, Nielsen said, getting off the track of talking about the weather, sports and money. The bottom line: A caring dad matters.

"The more dads engage with their kids," Wilcox said, "the more likely their kids are to flourish."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.