Award-winning journalist Paul Raeburn notes in his new book, “Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” that we acknowledge a father’s “authority and economic stability” in children’s home lives, but we don’t always take into account all the many other ways that dads contribute to the well-being of their children. As we approach Father’s Day this weekend, it’s a good time to look at new information social science is teaching us about the value of fathers.
According to Mr. Raeburn, most of the research about the importance of fathers is buried in scholarly journals from several fields — anthropology, neurology, sociology, psychology, etc.; as a result, even family scholars lack an overall perspective on the importance of fathers.
Mr. Raeburn has spent the past eight years bringing together this disparate research, and the result is a new book that is astounding in its scope and perspective on fatherhood, with some of its revelations being downright shocking. He indicates that the death rate of infants when the father is not around prior to their birth is nearly four times higher than when the prospective father is present helping to support the pregnant mother.
The more involved the father, the better. When a father plays with, reads to, or takes his children on outings, those children have fewer behavior problems in elementary school and less risk of criminal behavior when they become teenagers. On the other hand, fathers who are depressed during pregnancy can increase the child’s risk of depression throughout his or her life.
One very surprising advantage of fathers cited by Mr. Raeburn is their influence on language development. Most people think of mothers as being the ones who shore up the right-brain activities — reading, creativity, talking — but Lynne Vernon-Feagans, of the University of North Carolina, found that in several important ways, fathers matter more than mothers in language development: language skills, success in school and vocabulary.
Taking a longer-range view, an American Enterprise Institute report in April found that teens with involved fathers were 98 percent more likely to graduate from college and those with “very involved” fathers were 105 percent more likely to graduate. While the author, Brad Wilcox, of the University of Virginia, cites father involvement as a likely cause, Naomi Schaefer Riley speculates that it’s because fathers grant children more independence than mothers typically do. That freedom means more risk-taking in safe environments, thus preparing them for the real world and giving them the experiences that they need to mature.
Frayser High School in Memphis, Tenn., made headlines in 2011 owing to the high pregnancy rate. Everyone assumed that the new television shows — MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” — were to blame for the sudden epidemic, but numerous studies report the strong influence of fathers on their “daughters’ sexual behavior during adolescence.” Psychologist Sarah E. Hill, of Texas Christian University, for instance, presents data showing how a father’s absence is associated with “accelerated reproductive development and sexual risk-taking in daughters.” Now, it is generally accepted by scholars that father-absence or father-inattention has a strong negative influence on adolescent girls’ sexual risk-taking.
Given the mass of accumulated evidence that fathers play specific beneficial — even vital — roles in their children’s lives, it is surprising that the president’s recent initiative, “Opportunity for All: My Brother’s Keeper,” to address fatherlessness does not, according to the Daily Caller’s White House correspondent, Neil Munro, mention a single time the words “marriage” or “married,” even though the report admits that the lack of fathers “doubles the failure rate among African-American and Latino kids.” Instead, the new program calls for the “government to arrange substitute fathers for the huge numbers of fatherless boys and girls instead of binding fathers to their kids via marriage.” The program will, instead of encouraging fathers to accept responsibility for their children, encourage long-term mentors to get involved with fatherless children.
The report goes to great lengths to define “family” very broadly, with an end result that “government-managed communities” are elevated above the “autonomous two-parent family.” Instead of the family being the “core American value” that is central to society, the president promoted the idea that “community” performs the family function. Mr. Munro cites the following figures: “Community” gets 34 mentions, “government” gets 15 mentions, “federal” gets 54 mentions, “state” gets almost 60 mentions, and “local” gets 32 mentions, but there is not one mention of “marriage” or “married.” Of course, Hillary Clinton long ago tried to tell us that “it takes a village to raise a child.”
The research is very clear that children definitely do need a father, and preferably their biological one, and not just any man. They need involved, hands-on fathering that cements the connection to the man responsible for their birth. There’s nothing new about this need, of course, but recent research has shown us some fascinating wrinkles on the old themes. Fathers, the new research reveals, bring certain factors to parenting that are irreplaceable. Mentors and father-figures are needed, but they are not sufficient to meet a child’s need to experience the touch of their dad’s hand, his unconditional love and his voice reassuring him or her, “You are my son, you are my daughter … and I love you and am proud of you.”
Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D., author of Children at Risk and Marriage Matters, is Executive Director and Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute.