In a world that seems zealously devoted to downplaying the importance of gender-related roles in the family, I welcome a surprising article recently published by Scientific American that reminds of something that ought to be obvious but no longer is: children generally do best when there is a mother and a father in their lives. Fathers count. Fatherhood is actually important, and it’s not just ignorant, hateful Luddites living in a cave with their boxes of ammo and old Proposition 8 bumper stickers who say this. It’s actually the voice of reason with at least a whisper from the voice of science, or at least the voice of someone who managed to get a decent article published on Scientific American‘s website. Still a gift I’m glad to accept.
The article is “How Dads Influence Teens’ Happiness” by Paul Raeburn (May 1, 2014, Scientificamerican.com). The article is adapted from Raeburn’s book, Do Fathers Matter?: What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked.
In this article, Raeburn explains that some significant scientific research recently came up with the “surprising” finding that girls are much more vulnerable to risky sexual behaviors and teenage pregnancy if they do not have a father in their lives. Those who have a close relationship with a father in their early years are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. The key research was not done by fundamentalist Christians with an axe to grind, but by an evolutionary developmental psychologist seeking to know whether Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection can help explain how children’s environments shape their development. What he found was more than just a correlation, but evidence of causation. Fathers play an important role and are needed in the lives of girls.
The article also explores some of the fuzzier aspects of fatherhood that also matter a lot:
As parents of teenagers understand, it is often hard to know how to
respond to the crises, struggles, school challenges and social
difficulties that are a normal part of the passage from childhood to
adulthood. What we do matters—but it is so often hard to know
what we should do. One key feature of good parenting, however, is to be
accepting of teenagers, which again is often easier said than
done—especially when they show up with a tattoo or call you from the
Ronald P. Rohner of the University of Connecticut has spent some
years looking at the consequences for children and teenagers of being
either accepted or rejected by their parents. He thinks that parental
acceptance influences important aspects of personality. Children who are
accepted by their parents are independent and emotionally stable, have
strong self-esteem and hold a positive worldview. Those who feel they
were rejected show the opposite—hostility, feelings of inadequacy,
instability and a negative worldview.
Rohner analyzed data from 36 studies on parental acceptance and
rejection and found that they supported his theory. Both maternal and
paternal acceptance were associated with these personality
characteristics: A father’s love and acceptance are, in this regard, at
least as important as a mother’s love and acceptance. That is not
necessarily good news for fathers—it increases the demands on them to
get this right. “The great emphasis on mothers and mothering in America
has led to an inappropriate tendency to blame mothers for children’s
behavior problems and maladjustment when, in fact, fathers are often
more implicated than mothers in the development of problems such as
these,” Rohner says.
He also explores scientific research pointing to the importance of empathy from fathers.
Naturally, he adds a reminder that this is not intended to give guilt-trips to single mothers:
The evidence shows that fathers make unique contributions to their children. It emphatically does not show that children in families without fathers in the home are doomed
to failure or anything close to that. Although fathers matter, others
can help fill that role [see “Build Your Own Family” on page 48]. We all
know children who grew up in difficult circumstances but now live rich
and rewarding lives…. Fatherhood is about helping children become happy and healthy adults,
at ease in the world, and prepared to become fathers (or mothers)
themselves. We often say that doing what is best for our kids is the
most important thing we do. The new attention to fathers, and the
research we have discussed here, should help all of us find our way.
Happy Father’s Day!