Science and human heart both say dads important to a kid's life
The benefits a good relationship bestows are not one-sided, either. Strong bonds help Dad, too.
"When men engage with their children, they gain a stronger sense of purpose in life, increase intergenerational and extended family interaction and report increased job performance. One of my graduate school advisors used to say, 'Good fathering is good for everyone.' The empirical research seems to support this claim," Holmes said.
The strongest family structure with the best outcome for kids is an intact two-parent family. But that's not everyone's story. It's important to recognize that you can have no father in your life and still win record numbers of gold medals, like Michael Phelps, or grow up to be the president of the United States. However, strong ties to Dad give kids real advantages.
Fathers strongly influence how children see themselves. Dads can bestow "the assurance the person I am indelibly linked to through biology cares about me and thinks that I am important," Dyer said. Many of the cognitive, academic and behavioral problems a child might have stem from that child's view of his or her own value.
Research suggests the single most important thing a noncustodial dad can do to help his children is to financially invest in them so that other issues like poverty and hunger don't interfere with their development. That doesn't take away from the importance of also showing up to games and helping with school and being a strong presence in children's lives.
Whether parents are together or not, it's crucial that they are on the same page, supporting each other, when it comes to their children. If parents are out of sync — and that can happen even when couples are together —the kids get mixed messages. If one parent tries to undermine the other, it becomes stressful for the kids and weakens their footing, said Dyer.
If dad doesn't live with his kids, he needs to maintain a parenting role, not a pal role. The so-called Disneyland Dad (it can also be a mom) who is just there for fun things puts tremendous pressure on the parent who has daily responsibility and must enforce rules like schoolwork and curfew, Dyer said.
"Kids need parents more than they need friends," he added. They also need consistency, so parents need to agree on things like homework and chores and rules, together or not.
That's not to say parents have to agree on everything or can't disagree in front of the kids. It's important for children to see parents as individuals who may have different views but are able to resolve them. That teaches children the powerful lesson that problems can be solved, that people don't always see things the same, and agreement or compromise can be reached.
It changes Dad, too
A study from Northwestern University showed that higher levels of testosterone help men attract mates, but once a baby is born, testosterone levels drop, helping men become nurturers. The researchers said it helps men focus on taking care of dependent offspring.
Warren Farrell, a self-described "father-and-child reunionist" and author of "Why Men Are the Way They Are," thinks dads and moms provide natural checks and balances to each other and that benefits kids. Dads tend to push children a little, while moms worry about keeping their baby safe. Farrell uses the example of a student who doesn't like his teacher. Mom's reaction is to call the school and try to get the child moved, because it's a crucial year and it needs to go well. Dad wants to wait and see if the child adapts.
"Who is right?" Farrell asked, then paused before answering. "Both."
Dad is the primary boundary enforcer, though he may not have set them. He also provides a sense of adventure and security that lets children explore their world and take some risks. That's important for healthy development.
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