Happy Father's Day. To all you dads out there, remember just how important you are.
Why Dads Matter
The revolution has started. Head's up.
By Warren Farrell, Ph.D.*
On Mother's Day the most phone calls are made. On Father's Day the most collect phone calls are made.
We still think of dads as wallets-or as deadbeats if they fail to be wallets-- but reality is changing faster than the image. In the last twenty years the percentageof single dads has more than doubled, from 10% to 23% of all single-parent households. Almost one in four. Moms moving out of the home has been a headline-creating revolution; dads moving into the home has been the quietest revolution. Without the headlines, we miss the revolution. A case in point…
I am in Toronto during a Canadian tour for my book, Father and Child Reunion. A TV reporter and the cameraman are debating whether to interview me inside or out. I suggest going to a park, finding some dads, and having me comment on the differences in parenting styles. "Great idea", the reporter begins supportively, "but in the middle of a work morning, I doubt we'll find any dads".
I convince her to try. We are both surprised. There are about 25 caretakers at the playground…about equal numbers of fathers, nannies, and mothers. Turns out the reporter had passed the playground… but missed the revolution.
Just as the last third of the twentieth century was about women becoming more equal partners in the workplace, so the first third of the twenty-first century will be about men becoming more equal partners in the family. The evidence is in the next generation. A 2000 Harris Poll found that "young men in their twenties are seven percent more likely than young women to give up pay for more time with their families." A full 70% of men vs. 63% of women. Give up pay? Men? A generational shift without precedent.
Dads are, if you will, in the infancy of their revolution to re-enter the family, this time not only as money raisers, but also as child raisers. Not to out-do mom, but to do with mom. In fact, it is improbable that mothers will make much more progress in the workplace without dads sharing more responsibilities in the homeplace.
What are the contributions dads make to our children's lives? Start with girls' legendary difficulty with math and boys' difficulty with verbal skills. In the area of math and quantitative abilities, the more involved the dad is, the better both daughters and sons do. Ditto for boys' increase in verbal intelligence. And the amount of time a father spends reading to his daughter is a strong predictor of his daughter's future verbal ability. So both sexes improve in both sets of skills when fathers are more involved.
And when the children grow up? Women who grow up successful in their professions tend to have two things in common: fathers who respect and encourage them; and male mentors.
Suppose a mom has to choose between income and dad? I just finished doing expert witness testimony with a couple in which the mom was arguing that her moving the children out-of-state was fine because the children would be going to a better school and have more financial security with her new husband. We know, now, though, that father involvement is more important than either the quality of the school or the amount of money a family has. That is, children from good schools whose dads are not involved in their everyday lives do worse than children in poorer schools whose dads are involved-they do worse academically, socially and psychologically. Similarly, children from wealthier homes without dad do not do as well as children from poorer homes with dads. The specific act of moving a child away from the non-custodial parent accounts for 60% of the damage experienced by a child living without the other parent.
The implications of father involvement for social policy are staggering. We think of poverty as a major cause of vilent crime. Yet when children in homes with more income are compared to the children in homes with less income, there is no difference in the rates of violent crime if both are living with fathers. Poverty is highly correlated with violent crime because poverty is highly correlated with fatherlessness. The more dad is present, the more violent crime is absent. In brief, fathers stop violent crime; money doesn't.
In a study of teenage mothers in inner city Baltimore, one-third of their daughters also became teenage mothers. But, not one daughter or son who had a good relationship with her or his biological father had a baby before the age of nineteen. Connection with dad leads not only to preventing daughters from becoming pregnant prematurely, but also to preventing sons from creating pregnancies prematurely.
Ninety percent of homeless or runaway children are from fatherless homes. Father presence is the most important factor by far in preventing drug abuse (not drug use, but drug abuse). Overall, a close relationship with dad is the most important preventive medicine to avoid the cancer of a troubled childhood.
At what age does dad's influence begin? An Israeli study found that the more frequently a father visited the hospital of an infant who is prematurely born, the more rapidly the infant gained weight and the more quickly the infant was able to leave the hospital. U.S. studies show that by the age of six months, the more children have contact with dad, the higher their levels of mental competence and psycho-motor functioning, and the greater their level of trust and friendliness.
There are, however, many types of dads. Until recently we have known little about stepdads and single dads.
Stepdads make us think. If parenting emerges from a maternal instinct, why is it that a full 85% of stepparents are stepdads? If men are selfish and territorial, why do they give love, time and often money to children who are not "theirs". Stepdads usually deal with children who want their biological dad back, who often try to drive a wedge between them and mom. Yet millions of stepdads tip-toe through the minefields of rejection, advisers to mom with neither pay or authority.
In thirteen years of researching Father and Child Reunion, my biggest surprise was the effectiveness of single dads. Around the world, children brought up by single dads do better on twenty-six different areas of measurement (academic, psychological, social and physical health) than children brought up by single moms. Caveat. This does not mean that men are better fathers than women are mothers-single dads in the year 2000 are similar to female doctors in the 1950s: exceptionally motivated; and single dads have higher incomes, more education, and are older than their single mom counterparts. One reason, though, that children do so much better with single dads is ironic-they are more likely to have contact with their moms and feel better about their moms than vice-versa. Their dads are more likely to make sure that they have, in effect, two parents.
If dads are more effective than we may have thought, a new question arises. Exactly what makes them so effective? Conversely, if they are so effective, why are both the intact family and joint physical custody even more effective than a family with dad alone? As they say, "all that and more…" in Part II.
*Warren Farrell, Ph.D., is a San Diego-based author of Father and Child Reunion (2001), which contains the sources for each of the points in this article. He has also written Why Men Are The Way They Are and Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say, a Book of the Month Club selection, as well as The Myth of Male Power. A lecturer at the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Diego, he has been elected three times to the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in New York City. For more about Dr. Farrell or his books, see http://www.warrenfarrell.com/.