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Why Are Dads So Important—And So Overlooked?

I was surprised to learn recently that academic research is lacking that looks into the effects of having a dad present in a family. There is all sorts of anecdotal evidence that is very familiar in our society. Apparently, there have not been very many intensive studies to confirm what we all pretty much know: having a dad in the picture really helps children develop better, and a lack of a dad leads to all sorts of negative consequences for a child.

This came up as I was reading an article by a former cop in the Los Angeles Gang Detail, who has since transitioned into cold cases. He described a meeting he had with community members one night in the early '90s:

The problem (and the accompanying solution) became clear to me one night as I facilitated a town hall meeting focused on our growing gang problem. During the Q and A, a teary eyed woman raised her hand and asked, “What is the Police Department doing to keep our kids out of gangs?” Her question was genuine and urgent. I looked around the room, paused a second and then decided to speak the truth.

“Nothing,” I said. “We simply don’t have the resources to keep your kids out of trouble. Instead, we are doing our best to keep gangsters from harming the kids who are not in gangs.” But I knew I had to say more. “I have to ask you to look around the room for a minute.” Approximately fifty women scanned the audience in response to my request. I finally asked the obvious question, “Where are the dads?”

I've written previously about living in a depressed neighborhood with lots of transitional and broken homes. I see the effects of fatherlessness every day in my community, in our crime rates, in our young people who are badly equipped to deal with the challenges they face. In a community with fewer economic and social opportunities, they face a LOT of challenges. I try to stay involved with community organizations and character-building extracurricular activities that can provide father figures and resources for these kids to learn what they need to know to survive. Of course, I also try to be the best example and presence I can be for my own children as well.

So when I go searching for statistics and research that show the real psychological and social effects of fatherlessness, it's disappointing that many articles start with, "The influence of fathers on their teenage children has long been overlooked." One wonders if the fight between Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown had a chilling effect on even asking the question.

Luckily, that appears to be turning around just a bit. A 2014 review article in Scientific American spoke of a psychological study the previous year that discussed the emotional effect on teenage girls in families with fathers versus those without:

Researchers have revealed a robust association between father absence—both physical and psychological—and accelerated reproductive development and sexual risk-taking in daughters ...

When a girl's family is disrupted, and her father leaves or is not close to her, she sees her future: men don't stay for long, and her partner might not stick around either. So finding a man requires quick action. The sooner she is ready to have children, the better. She cannot consciously decide to enter puberty earlier, but her biology takes over, subconsciously ...

In contrast, a girl who grows up in a family in which the bond between her parents is more secure and who has a father who lives in the home might well (subconsciously) adopt a slower reproductive strategy. She might conclude that she can take a bit more time to start having children. She can be more thorough in her preparation.

The authors of this study also asked young mothers to describe episodes in their lives when their fathers were present, and episodes when they were absent. The results correlated strongly with their attitudes towards risky sexual behavior:

Women became “more sexually unrestricted” after recalling an incident in which their father was disengaged, Hill explained. Further experiments showed that father disengagement did not change women's views of other kinds of risky behavior; for instance, they were not more likely to ride a bike without a helmet. The effect was limited to sex.

The effect is profound. Other studies have shown that girls who have warm, loving relationships with their fathers very early on—by 5 to 7 years old—actually have a later onset of their first menstrual cycle, and exhibit sexual behavior later in their teen years.

These effects are seen in children of both sexes, according to another survey of available research, this one done in Australia:

Effective fathers display warmth toward their child, believe in their ability to parent well, are able to reason with their child, are involved in their child’s life and parent well with their partner. Ineffective parents are over-protective, hostile toward their child, angry and have argumentative relationships with their partners. Each of these characteristics has a unique influence on a child’s health, social, emotional and academic outcomes.

The authors go on to cite several beneficial effects. Note that they corroborate the importance of dads in a child's early development:

  • Children who have a father or father figure live with them throughout their life have better learning outcomes, general health, emotional wellbeing and fewer problem behaviours;
  • While mothers have a significant influence on their child’s health, academic, social and emotional outcomes, after accounting for this, fathers have a unique and diverse role in improving outcomes for their child;
  • A father’s influence on their child’s outcomes becomes most prominent when children reach school age;
  • Fathers who consistently parent well over time have children who perform better academically, socially, emotionally and enjoy better health and development.

So as we've seen, a lack of a strong paternal relationship can lead to many bad outcomes in children, including higher poverty rates, increased crime rates, increased unhealthy behavior including obesity and depression, increases in risk-taking in sexual development, and increased gang activity. Conversely, children who have strong fathers in their lives show delayed sexual activity, healthier lifestyles, stronger coping skills, and stronger decision-making abilities.

If we wish to cure the societal ills we see so often in inner cities, we must embrace what we know to be effective solutions. We must prevent fatherlessness as much as possible by rededicating resources to skill building programs, parenting classes, and proven programs that improve economic outcomes. We must embrace free market solutions to regional joblessness and underemployment.

We must stop ignoring the need for fathers, and honor the importance of fathers to the development of young children.