It’s the time to celebrate Fathers’ Day and it inevitably makes us think about our own fathers but also about the importance of fatherhood: an idea often politicized and one that has usually been more contested than the importance of motherhood.
In the context of early childhood development, we are told that "even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections.”6 Research has also found that early positive father-child interactions can reduce cognitive delay of infants and that father involvement can also improve weight gain in preterm infants and boost early language skills.1 Furthermore, the involvement of fathers in children’s lives at a young age has been linked to toddlers developing greater abilities to start school with higher levels of academic readiness. 1
In a 2008 speech, President Obama reminded us of the importance of family as the most important building rock of our lives and called “to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation”. 3 A great deal of research would support that statement and the thesis that kids who grew up without a father are worse off than those who did have a loving father. Many studies show that children with fathers do better in school and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and that children without fathers are more likely to do jail time and are more prone to obesity, etc. 2
But is that comparison really accurate? These studies have traditionally compared households with a father and a mother against single mother households (fatherless). As quoted by Sciencedaily.com, Timothy Biblarz of USC and Judith Stacey of NYU found that the social science research that is routinely cited “does not actually speak to the questions of whether or not children need both a mother and a father at home. Instead proponents generally cite research that compares [heterosexual two-parent] families with single parents, thus conflating the number with the gender of parents."3
So how do kids who grew up with 2 moms fare? The same scholars found that there are far more similarities than differences among children of lesbian and heterosexual parents, according to the study 3. OK, so is having a father only important because two parents are better than one, or are male role models necessary?
Some say no, some say yes. For instance, one study conducted at the University of Amsterdam in 2012, found no evidence “that the associations between gender role traits and adolescent psychological well-being were different for girls and boys, or for those with or without male role models” 4. On the other hand, many argue that the importance of dads goes beyond that. Fathers are different than mothers: dads are not only capable of nurturing children, but they do it in ways, which are distinctly different from moms. The contrast in different approaches of essential activities such as play, feeding and bathing “fosters a capacity for children to attach to each parent as a separate individual with distinct relational styles” 5. That is for babies and toddlers, but there is also something to be said about young boys and young girls learning what a good dad is.
And that is perhaps the crux of the matter. It’s not about the importance of a father, but the importance of having and being a good father. And being a good dad has apparently little to do with one’s own gender, and everything to do with what we do and share with our children.
1) University of Florida - The Impact of Fathers on Children's Well-Being
Sarah M. Ellis, Yasmin S. Khan, Victor W. Harris, Ricki McWilliams, and Diana Converse
2) The Importance of Fathers (According to Science). Brett and Kate McKay. http://www.artofmanliness.com/2015/06/19/the-importance-of-fathers-according-to-science/
3) Wiley-Blackwell. "Do children need both a mother and a father?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100121135904.htm.
4)The Williams Institute, UCLA. Are Male Role Models Necessary?
Autostraddle By Marie Lyn Bernard http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/press/are-male-role-models-necessary/
5) The Alliance for Early Childhood. Father's Role in Early Child Development by Louis WEiss, Ph.D. http://theallianceforec.org/library.php?c=5&news=77
6) Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D., The Long Reach of Childhood. The Importance of Fathers Is Father's Day Real? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-long-reach-childhood/201106/the-importance-fathers