By Hugh C. McBride
"One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.”
George Herbert (17th Century English poet and clergyman)
Every Father's Day, after the handmade cards have been carefully put away for safekeeping (and the neckties perhaps a bit more unceremoniously stashed), many dads ask themselves the questions that motivate many of their actions – and occasionally plague their sleepless nights, "Am I doing this right? And am I doing enough?"
It's no secret that parenting a child is one of life's most challenging endeavors. And in the four centuries since George Herbert praised the power of paternal influence, more than a few cultural observers have called into question the value (and, in some cases, the very necessity) of a father's efforts on behalf of his children.
But those critics are arguing in the face of considerable scientific and sociological research, the bulk of which points toward a common conclusion: Fathers matter – and good fathers offer a world of benefits to their sons and daughters.
The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) doesn't leave much room for interpretation when weighing in on the many benefits of effective fatherhood:
Research literature supports the finding that a loving and nurturing father improves outcomes for children, families and communities.
Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors including drug use, truancy, and criminal activity.
Citing information from a National Fatherhood Initiative publication titled “The Father Factor: How Father Absence Affects Our Youth,” the NRFC notes that fathers who play an active role in their children's lives can significantly increase the quality of their children's lives, and decrease the threats to their healthy development:
• Research indicates that children are more likely to be healthy when they have fathers who are involved in daily efforts to ensure their health and safety.
• Children whose fathers live with them are less likely to be either abused or neglected.
• Children who live with their father and mother are less likely to engage in problematic behaviors that result in their being suspended or expelled from school.
• Girls whose fathers are not involved in their lives are at considerably higher risk of early sexual activity (and are seven times more likely to become pregnant) than are adolescents whose fathers are involved with their upbringing.
• Having a close relationship with one's father has been identified as a significant protective factor against adolescent drug and alcohol abuse.
Fathers and Daughters
Historically, the role of fathers has been thought to be of primary importance to the development of sons, while the raising of daughters was often believed to be the province of the mother. Today, though, it is becoming increasingly clear that although mothers play a vital role in raising daughters (and sons), a father's relationship with his daughter can result in significant and measureable improvements to his daughter’s life.
For example, a May 27 article by clinical child psychologist and neuroscience researcher Nestor Lopez-Duran described the ways in which a healthy father-daughter relationship can have a significant positive influence on the daughter's relationships with romantic partners.
Writing for the Child Psychology Research Blog, Lopez-Duran reported on a study of 78 teen girls and young adult women (average age of 19) in which the quality of the daughters' relationships with their fathers was compared to the daughters' relationships with their current boyfriends.
An evaluation of three aspects of those relationships – communication, trust, and time spent together – led the researchers to conclude that daughters who communicated with and trusted their fathers were likely to have similarly healthy relationships with their boyfriends:
1. Girls and young women who reported having good communication with their fathers also had significantly better communication with their boyfriends than did study subjects who had low levels of communication with their fathers.
2. Girls and young women who had high levels of trust with their fathers also had significantly better communication and trust with their boyfriends.
3. The amount of time that the girls and young women spent with their fathers was not associated with communication, trust, or time spent with their boyfriends.
Quality vs. Quantity
As is noted in the study that Lopez-Duran described, effective fatherhood is about much more than spending time in the presence of one's children. Being there, as the old adage advises, may be half the battle, but the true benefits of fatherhood are the results of actions, not mere presence.
In a paper titled "The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children," authors Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox established the following seven steps as essential components of effective fatherhood:
1. Fostering a positive relationship with the children's mother
2. Spending time with children
3. Nurturing children
4. Disciplining children appropriately
5. Serving as a guide to the outside world
6. Protecting and providing
7. Serving as a positive role model
Though maintaining a presence in their children's lives is obviously an important concern for fathers, Rosenberg and Wilcox noted that " being there" is beneficial primarily as a means of engaging in the activities (such as disciplining, guiding, and nurturing) that ultimately make the biggest difference in children's lives.
From Theory to Practice
Expounding upon their seven pillars of effective fatherhood, Rosenberg and Wilcox provided specific examples of ways in which fathers can influence and enrich their children's lives:
• Play with your children. Fathers' play has a unique role in a child's development, they wrote, noting that children who play with their fathers learn important lessons about exploring the world and keeping their aggressive impulses in check.
• Work with your children. Fathers should engage their children in productive activities such as doing household chores, washing dishes after dinner, or cleaning up the yard, the authors advise. Research, they wrote, indicates that these types of activities promote responsibility, self-esteem, and self-worth among children – qualities that have been associated with academic achievement, career advancement, and psychological health in adulthood.
• Think with your children. Fathers should encourage their children's intellectual growth, Rosenberg and Wilcox advised. From reading to (and later with) their children to supporting their academic pursuits to meeting with teachers and attending school activities, fathers who maintain an active role in their children's education can provide specific support while also emphasizing the overall importance of academics.
• Stay active with your children. Fathers should maintain an active, physical, and playful style of fathering even as their children develop into adolescents and young adults, the authors encouraged, while putting an emphasis on "active." Activities such as tossing a football or going to the library are more valuable than spending time in passive endeavors such as watching television, they reported, noting that the benefits of active recreation extend to the children's emotional health, social growth, and physical fitness.
Need a Helping Hand?
Sometimes the challenges of parenting threaten to overwhelm even the most dedicated and informed fathers and mothers. If you feel like even your best efforts aren't enough to overcome the problems that are currently affecting your family, know that help – and hope – are not far away.
From wilderness programs for troubled teens to adolescent drug rehab facilities and therapeutic private boarding schools, the most effective programs for troubled teens and other at-risk young people also feature family components that help moms and dads identify and address the challenges that are facing their families.
In some programs, this family support takes the form of regular phone consultations with therapists and counselors, while other opportunities include in-person family therapy or even extended on-site parenting workshops.
Regardless of the challenges you are experiencing or the type of program that you choose to help heal your family, don't give in to the temptation to equate a temporary challenge with feelings of "failed fatherhood." As the research indicates (and as experts continue to emphasize), being an effective father isn't merely a matter of making the most of the good times – it's about overcoming the difficult moments together, and remaining a consistent positive presence in your children's lives.
Our understanding of family dynamics, social development, and the psychology of father-child relationships has advanced considerably in the centuries since George Herbert extolled the many virtues of fatherhood. But the concept he expressed is as applicable today as it was in the 1600s: Fathers matter.