Dads make a difference, and science can prove it
Canada made news recently for its new rules forbidding government workers from using “gender-biased” terms like “mother” and “father” when conducting official business. In the United States, there is a growing movement encouraging the use of “Parent 1” and “Parent 2” on birth certificates.
In this brave new world, it would seem that our culture has decided that it is well past time to overthrow the cisgender hegemony and proclaim motherhood and fatherhood to be indistinguishable and interchangeable. This would all be well and good if science wasn’t consistently showing that fathers and mothers bring different gifts to the parenting table and that children raised in households without one or the other do not fare as well as children raised in homes with both.
Fortunately, although it may no longer be politically correct to do so, it is at least still legal to celebrate Father’s Day. I thought it might be a good idea to take advantage of this freedom while it still exists and reflect on what science has to say about why dads matter.
A 2013 study improved upon previous research and affirmed that strong paternal involvement in girls’ lives significantly decreased the risk that they would engage in early or high-risk sexual activity. Previous research has shown that involved fathering tends to inhibit promiscuity in both adolescent boys and girls.
A 2018 study in the journal Academic Pediatrics found even when children are raised in households with involved mothers that also having an involved father increases the likelihood that children will exhibit better cognitive development, as well as improved mental and physical health outcomes.
Longitudinal research has demonstrated that the presence of an involved, caring father significantly decreases the risk of delinquency and substance abuse in adolescent boys. Other research on mammals suggests this benefit may be biologically rooted. Studies on rat pups found that while involved mothering gives baby rats the ability to tolerate stress more effectively, nurturing fathers give rat pups a greater capacity to regulate aggression.
Children who have a close relationship with an involved father are twice as likely to go to college and find stable employment after high school than those children who do not have a loving father in their lives.
A 2019 study in National Science Review found that while mothers primarily are responsible for laying the foundations for speech and language development, involved fathers have a greater influence on the child’s developing vocabulary. Previous studies on parental influence on language development show that moms are more likely to use baby talk with little ones, which enhances speech development by overemphasizing tones, emotional cues and the shape of one’s mouth when forming words. Dads, on the other hand, tend to speak more normally to their children, which exposes them to a wider range of words and teaches kids how to use those words in context. Together, moms’ and dads’ unique gifts help kids develop a full range of language skills.
Multiple studies have shown that even in households where mothers are active in their faith, it is the father’s level of involvement in a faith tradition that most consistently predicts whether a child will come to own their family’s faith as an adult and allow their faith to have a practical impact on their life choices. A review of the literature on faith transmission suggests that while faithful moms convey a spiritual sensitivity to their children, faithful dads influence the degree to which faith is practiced and lived in the world. The millennial epidemic of “spiritual but not religious” may be a direct result of the number of children raised in homes with religiously engaged mothers and religiously disengaged fathers.
By the way, it isn’t just moms whose hormones change after childbirth. Several studies conducted over the last 10 years show that caring for children causes a drop in fathers’ testosterone levels, which decreases dads’ levels of aggression and increases their ability to be protective, nurturing and reliable caregivers to their spouse and children.
The science is clear. Mothers and fathers are not interchangeable, nor are they replaceable. The loss of a mother or a father is devastating, and the benefits lost by the absence of a parent of either gender simply cannot be made up for by filling that space with another caregiver of the same gender. That isn’t a judgment on the nurturing skills of that same-gendered caregiver. It’s just science. It turns out that Mother Nature simply doesn’t care about gender politics, no matter how much progressive culture warriors try to re-educate her.
So, even if it causes our too-hip-for-science friends to scowl at us, this Father’s Day, let’s celebrate the uniqueness of dads and rejoice in all the ways fatherhood is a blessing to our children.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including “The BeDADitudes: 8 Ways to Be An Awesome Dad” (Ave Maria Press).