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  • In the '70s, most experts thought dads' main child-rearing role was breadwinning. We now know that's not the case. Tweet This
  • Why do dads matter for their kids' social competence? Much of the evidence says it's about how they play together. Tweet This

As recently as a generation ago, in the 1970s, most psychologists and other “experts” thought that, besides bringing home a paycheck, fathers didn’t matter much for their kids. There wasn’t much evidence for the irrelevancy of fathers. But there wasn’t a lot of data to suggest they were relevant, either. Few had asked the question, and nobody knew the answer. The irrelevancy of fathers had become an article of faith among researchers, and why would any of them question something they knew to be true?

But then researchers started challenging that assumption and studying fathers’ roles in greater detail. To sum up their conclusions, we now know that fathers are vastly important in their children’s lives, in ways that both scholars and parenting experts have overlooked.

One of the most convincing summaries of fathers’ contribution to children’s development comes from Sweden. Researchers at Uppsala University wanted to know if there was evidence to support arguments for more parental leave for fathers and for other measures that would increase the involvement of fathers in child rearing. They collected twenty-four of what they thought were the best studies of father involvement and children’s outcomes. The studies were longitudinal, meaning they followed fathers and their families over at least a year. Such studies are generally more persuasive than those that simply ask families about current or past practices in the home. And when the data from a number of studies is combined and analyzed together in what’s called a meta-analysis, it can sometimes produce clearer results than can any single study alone.

Fathers are vastly important in their children’s lives, in ways that both scholars and parenting experts have long overlooked.

The researchers found a wide variety of beneficial social and psychological effects stemming from fathers’ direct engagement with their children. Children whose fathers played with them, read to them, took them on outings, and helped care for them had fewer behavioral problems in the early school years, and less likelihood of delinquency or criminal behavior as adolescents.

Among disadvantaged children born prematurely, those with engaged fathers had higher IQs at age three than those children whose fathers had not been playing with them or helping to care for them. Children with involved fathers were less likely to smoke as teenagers. And here was a particularly stunning result: fathers reading to seven-year-old girls and asking sixteen-year-old girls about school helped to prevent depression and other psychological ailments in the kids decades later. The researchers’ conclusion? Enough is now known about the positive impact of fathers’ presence on children’s lives that governments should start changing public policies to encourage fathers to spend time with their children.

Fathers’ importance in children’s transition to school, and their establishment of new relationships and friendships, was also explored by Ross D. Parke of the University of California, Riverside, who has focused largely on the social development of children. He believes that fathers play a central role in children’s socialization. In a 2004 study, Parke and his colleagues note that this key aspect of children’s development is linked to a network of relationships inside and outside the family. Fathers and mothers both influence children’s peer relationships, sometimes in overlapping ways. And children will be influenced by their peers, with whom they can have many different kinds of relationships. We want our children to be socially adept and well adjusted, and understanding how they form peer relationships can help us help them become more comfortable socially.

As far back as World War II, researchers noticed that U.S. children whose fathers were away at war when their children were four to eight years old later had problems with peer relationships. The same was true for sons of Norwegian sailors, who were away for months at a time. Their fathers were not there to help them learn how to behave with others, and the children were consequently less popular and (hardly surprisingly) less satisfied with their relationships with their friends. In a separate study, one group of researchers watched fathers in their homes playing with their three- and four-year-old children. Teachers were then asked to rank the children according to their popularity among their classmates in preschool. Children of fathers who engaged in the most physical and enjoyable play had the highest popularity ratings.

Much of the evidence linking fathers to their children’s social competence comes back to the way they play with their children. Play changes as children grow older; tickling and chasing toddlers is gradually replaced by teaching kids to ride a bicycle, playing catch, riding roller coasters, and other more sophisticated kinds of play. (In my case, when my kids were teenagers and ready for Batman: The Ride at Six Flags, I was too terrified to join them. I still feel bad about that.) Play changes, but it remains a central part of the interactions between children and their fathers throughout childhood.

Much of the evidence linking fathers to their children’s social competence comes back to the way they play with their children.

Ross Parke thinks the way a father plays is the key to healthy development in kids. He says that when fathers exert too much control over the play, instead of responding to their children’s cues, their sons can have more difficulty with their peers. Daughters who were the most popular likewise enjoyed playing with their fathers and had the most “nondirective” fathers. The children of these fathers also tended to have easier transitions into elementary school. Children whose fathers took turns being the one to suggest activities and showed an interest in the child’s suggestions grew up to be less aggressive, more competent, and better liked. These were fathers who played actively with their children, but were not authoritarian; father and child engaged in give-and-take.

The importance of play might be connected to the demands it places on both fathers and children to recognize one another’s emotional signals during fast-paced, intense activity—which is what children also need to do with their peers. Fathers who’ve said they remember both the good and bad in their own childhoods are more likely to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of their children.

So, dads, even after Father’s Day is over, keep in mind how much your parenting matters—even when it  looks like you’re just goofing around with your kids.

Excerpted from DO FATHERS MATTER?: What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked by Paul Raeburn, published in June 2014 by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © by Paul Raeburn. All rights reserved.

Paul Raeburn writes the About Fathers blog for Psychology Today and is the chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT. He also contributes to the New York Times, DiscoverScientific American and The Huffington Post.