Science and human heart both say dads important to a kid's life
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
BOUNTIFUL — Every afternoon, 14-month-old Calder Ubri stands by the glass panel in the front door and watches for his dad to come home.
And each afternoon, Jonathan Ubri gets off the bus and walks home. When he gets close enough to see his toddler bouncing up and down at the sight of him, little arms pinwheeling, the dad starts running, his own arms outstretched.
"Calder, Calder, Calder," he yells, smiling wide. As he clears the door, he scoops up his baby boy and they roll on the ground, hugging and wrestling and bestowing sloppy kisses on each other.
Father-son time is a joyous thing for Jonathan Ubri, 26, unlike anything he had growing up. His own father showed up rarely and somewhat randomly when Ubri was a child growing up near Boston. Ubri is determined to not be that kind of dad. He plans to be there for his son.
Research says that will be a great gift for Calder's future.
A gift from dad
Positive father involvement affects every stage of a child's development, impacting young lives at each age, according to numerous studies. Dad helps an infant's secure attachment, a toddler's ability to regulate negative emotions and a middle school-aged child's self-esteem. A good relationship with Dad also boosts school achievement for adolescents, according to Erin Kramer Holmes, assistant professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life.
"Almost four decades of good social science research establish that fathers matter to children's healthy development," she said. "The quality of men's parenting has also been associated with fewer behavior problems, lower depression rates and better social skills with peers."
Holmes' colleague, Justin Dyer, also an assistant professor, points out that dads aren't better than moms, but each gender's offerings are vital. "You can see fathers and mothers both uniquely contribute to almost anything you could possibly think of," he said.
Father's Day is a good time to celebrate the father-child bond. The more dads are involved with kids, attending games, helping with homework, playing, talking, nurturing, the more positive effects are bestowed on a child's development. When a father is warm and expresses love, that has unique effects.
"It's so clear from the research that the more fathers do, the better off kids are emotionally, socially and academically," Dyer said.
Fathers have great influence over how children see themselves in terms of individual value. "If my father does not value me, if the person that created me, that is a part of me, doesn't value me, then am I worth anything at all?" Dyer asked. "This is where the wonderful and often heroic efforts of grandparents, uncles, stepdads and adoptive fathers are so valuable to children whose biological fathers are not involved."
Research published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that girls whose dads were absent when they were very young are more prone to depression as teens. A different study noted that girls who are close to their fathers are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers. And researchers in Britain are among those linking Dad's presence to a child's better academic performance and lower involvement in crime.
The Department of Health and Human Services summarizes a father's vital role this way: "Involved fathers provide practical support in raising children and serve as models for their development. Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior compared to children who have uninvolved fathers. Committed and responsible fathering during infancy and early childhood contributes emotional security, curiosity, and math and verbal skills."
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.
"Most fathers have a natural propensity to roughhouse, to not let children get away with things or manipulate. They are less likely to overprotect. Dads are important to reading skills and learning to trust your instincts. Moms are not supposed to be second dads and dads are not supposed to be another mom," Farrell said.
Parenting leaves an indelible mark that is unique for each father, Farrell said. What Dad adds to his son's or daughter's life will "seep in like syrup drips into a pancake."
Jonathan Ubri knows that, both from his own lack of a father and from the father figures he found to guide him as a teenager. Through their examples, he knows what a dad can contribute to a child and he has plans for Calder and for the siblings he's sure the little boy will one day have.
When he started dating his wife Celeste, he was, in his own words, "constantly analyzing" her dad, Randy Russell of Sugar City, Idaho. Comparing him to his other mentors, he recognized there are different types of fathers and that he could learn from each of them. He likes the fact Russell didn't have to tell his kids to be good. He is a good man who provided that example and the expectation never had to be put into words.
Celeste Ubri stays home with Calder and by the time his dad, who is a campaign manager for KSL Local Interactive, gets home, "He's kind of done with me and bored," she said. "Calder's a lot more affectionate with his dad than he is with me. It's pretty funny. Jonathan reads him books. They play a lot. I entertain Calder with toys. Jonathan just plays with him."
Even without a father to emulate in his home, Jonathan Ubri was fundamentally decent. "I always had a good conscience; I was not ever ill-intentioned," he said. He wants to pass that on.
His goals are both lofty and breathtakingly simple. Jonathan Ubri wants to be the go-to guy for his kids, a leader they look up to and a place they go for love, absolutely certain they will get it from him, no matter what. He never, by the way, felt unloved. His mom made sure of that, he said.
He said he will know he was the type of dad he wanted to become if, when Calder is grown and faced with a choice, a question or a dilemma, he responds: "I'll ask my dad. He probably knows."
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