There's been a strange turn of opinions about fatherhood — at least in recent public debates. Decades of research have documented the challenges faced by children growing up without fathers. But you would never know it looking at some of the recent arguments in favor of "genderless parenting."
So what do the decades of research on fathers say?
Boys from fatherless families are twice as likely to end up in prison before age 30 (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2004.00079.x/full). Girls raised in homes without their fathers are much more likely to engage in early sexual behavior and end up pregnant as teenagers (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8624.00569/abstract). Children who grow up without their married fathers are also more likely to experience depression, behavioral problems, and school expulsion (www.familyfacts.org/briefs/13/beyond-breadwinner-how-fathers-make-a-difference-in-their-childrens-life-prospects). And there is more abuse — physical, sexual, and emotional — in homes without fathers. One study found abuse to be 10 times more likely for children in homes with their mother and an unrelated boyfriend (https://www.nis4.org/nishome.asp).
These challenges can partly be explained by the fact that these children are more likely to grow up in poverty (www.familyfacts.org/briefs/8/marriage-and-poverty). But that, too, reveals the importance of dads, as married fathers are the primary breadwinners in almost 70 percent of married families — providing resources that benefit children in a host of ways.
In spite of this evidence, some academics and public opinion makers are championing the notion that fathers are not, in fact, essential. As two researchers recently argued in a top-tier family science publication, "The gender of parents only matters in ways that don't matter." Though it may be important to have two "parental figures," their genders and relationship to the child "don't matter" (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00678.x/abstract). According to this narrative, since mothers and fathers can each do what the other can do, and do it just as well, one or the other is unnecessary and replaceable.
It's easy to see why these claims seem believable. We all know mothers who are breadwinners, and fathers who perform the traditional female role of providing full-time quality childcare. But are fathers and mothers really the same? Do mothers "father," and do fathers "mother" in the same way the other would do?
Andrea Doucet's extensive research with 118 primary caregiver dads, including stay-at-home dads, led her to conclude that fathers do not "mother." And that's a good thing. Although mothering and fathering have much in common, there were persistent, critical differences important to children's development.
To begin, fathers more often used fun and playfulness to connect with their children. No doubt, many a mother has stood by holding her breath while fathers "tickle and toss" their infants. Yet playfulness and fun are often critical modes of connection with children — even from infancy.
Fathers also more consistently made it a point to get their children outdoors to do physical activities, as if they intuitively knew that focusing on physical development was also critical to nurturing.
When fathers responded to children's hurts, they also focused more on fixing the problem than the hurt feeling. This seeming "indifference" to those feelings turned out to be useful — particularly as children grew older. They would seek out and share things with their dads precisely because of their problem-solving responses.
Fathers were also more likely to guide their children in deciding how much risk to take and then encouraging them in that risk taking — whether on the playground, in schoolwork, or at trying something new. This was part of the way dads fostered independence in everything from children making their own lunches and tying their shoes to doing household chores and making academic decisions.
As she evaluated these differences, Doucet wondered if dads just weren't as "nurturing" as moms. Their behaviors didn't always fit the traditional definition of "holding close and responding sensitively."
But a key part of nurturing also includes the capacity to "let go." It was that careful "letting-go" that fathers were particularly good at — in ways that mothers were often not. These unique contributions help underscore why so many findings suggest that when dads are not present children are more likely to suffer.
Arguments for the non-essential father may reflect an effort to be more accepting of the reality that many children grow up without their dads. But surely a more effective and compassionate approach would be to acknowledge the unique contributions of mothers and fathers in their children's lives, then do what we can to ensure that becomes a reality for more of our children.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.