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June 15, 2010 Print

Fathers are vital to healthy child development

by Jenny Tyree

by Glenn T. Stanton

Fathers parent differently from mothers and that difference matters greatly for children.

Fatherhood is just as essential to healthy child development as motherhood. In some measures, father-love is more important. The professional journal, Review of General Psychology, finds,

evidence suggests that the influence of father love on offspring’s development is as great as and occasionally greater than the influence of mother love.1

Fathering expert Dr. Kyle Pruett explains in Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, “fathers do not mother.”2

Psychology Today explains,

fatherhood turns out to be a complex and unique phenomenon with huge consequences for the emotional and intellectual growth of children.3

Erik Erikson, a pioneer in the world of child psychology, explained that father love and mother love are qualitatively different kinds of love. Fathers “love more dangerously” because their love is more “expectant, more instrumental” than a mother’s love.4

A father, as a male biological parent, brings unique contributions to the job of parenting a child that no one else can replicate.

Following are some of the most compelling ways father involvement makes a positive difference in a child’s life. The first benefit is the difference itself.

Fathers Parent Differently

This difference provides an important diversity of experiences for children. Dr. Pruett explains that fathers have a distinct style of communication and interaction with children. By eight weeks of age, infants can tell the difference between their mother or father interacting with them.

This diversity, in itself, provides children with a broader, richer experience of contrasting relational interactions — more so than for children who are raised by only one parent. Whether they realize it or not, children are learning at earliest age, by sheer experience, that men and women are different and have different ways of dealing with life, other adults and children. This understanding is critical for their development.

A father, as a male biological parent, brings unique contributions to the job of parenting a child that no one else can replicate.

Fathers Play Differently

Fathers tend to play with, and mothers tend to care for, children. While both mothers and fathers are physical, fathers are physical in different ways.

Fathers tickle more, they wrestle, and they throw their children in the air (while mother says… “Not so high!”). Fathers chase their children, sometimes as playful, scary “monsters.” Fathers are louder at play, while mothers are quieter. Mothers cuddle babies, and fathers bounce them. Fathers roughhouse while mothers are gentle. Fathers encourage competition; mothers encourage equity. Father’s style encourages independence while mother’s encourages security.

Fathering expert, John Snarey, explains that children who roughhouse with their fathers learn that biting, kicking and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable.5 They learn self-control by being told when “enough is enough” and when to “settle down.”

Girls and boys both learn a healthy balance between timidity and aggression. Children need mom’s softness as well as dad’s roughhousing. Both provide security and confidence in their own ways by communicating love and physical intimacy.

Fathers Build Confidence

Go to any playground and listen to the parents there. Who is encouraging kids to swing or climb just a little higher, ride their bike just a little faster, throw just a little harder, etc? Who is encouraging kids to be careful? Mothers protect and dads encourage kids to push the limits.

Either of these parenting styles by themselves can be unhealthy. One can tend toward encouraging risk without consideration of consequences. The other tends to avoid risk, which can fail to build independence, confidence and progress. Joined together, they keep each other in balance and help children remain safe while expanding their experiences and confidence.

Fathers Communicate Differently

A major study showed that when speaking to children, mothers and fathers are different. Mothers will simplify their words and speak on the child’s level. Men are not as inclined to modify their language for the child.

Mother’s way facilitates immediate communication. Father’s way challenges the child to expand her vocabulary and linguistic skills — an important building block of academic success.

Father’s talk tends to be more brief, directive and to the point. It also makes greater use of subtle body language. Mothers tend to be more descriptive, personal and verbally encouraging. Children who do not learn how to understand and use both styles of conversation as they grow will be at a disadvantage, because they will experience each out in the world.

Fathers Discipline Differently

Educational psychologist Carol Gilligan tells us that fathers stress justice, fairness and duty (based on rules), while mothers stress sympathy, care and help (based on relationships). Fathers tend to observe and enforce rules systematically and sternly, which teach children the objectivity and consequences of right and wrong.

Mothers tend toward grace and sympathy in the midst of disobedience, which provide a sense of hopefulness. Again, either of these by themselves is not good, but together, they create a healthy, proper balance.

Fathers Prepare Children for the Real World

Dads tend to see their child in relation to the rest of the world. Mothers tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their child. Think about it.

What motivates most mothers as parents? They are motivated primarily by things from the outside world that could hurt their child (i.e., lightning, accidents, disease, strange people, dogs or cats, etc.). Fathers, while not unconcerned with these things, tend to focus on how their children will or will not be prepared for something they might encounter in the world.

Fathers help children see that particular attitudes and behaviors have certain consequences. For instance, fathers are more likely to tell their children that if they are not nice to others, kids will not want to play with them. Or, if they don’t do well in school, they will not get into a good college or land a desirable job.

Fathers help children prepare for the reality and harshness of the real world, and mothers help protect against it. Both are necessary as children grow into adulthood.

Fathers Provide A Look at the World of Men; Mothers, the World of Women

Men and women are different. They eat differently. They dress differently. They smell different. They cope with life differently. Fathers do “man things” and mothers do “woman things.”

Girls and boys who grow up with a father are more familiar and secure with the curious world of men. Girls with involved, married fathers are more likely to have healthier relationships with boys in adolescence and men in adulthood because they learn from their fathers how proper men act toward women. They know which behaviors are inappropriate. They also have a healthy familiarity with the world of men. They don’t wonder how a man’s facial stubble feels or what it’s like to be hugged by strong arms.

This knowledge builds emotional security and safety from the exploitation of predatory males. They also learn from mom how to live in a woman’s world. This is especially important as they approach adolescence and all the changes that life-stage brings.

Boys who grow up with dads are less likely to be violent. They have their masculinity affirmed and learn from their fathers how to channel their masculinity and strength in positive ways. Fathers help children understand proper male sexuality, hygiene and behavior in age-appropriate ways. Mothers help boys understand the female world and develop sensitivity toward women. They also help boys know how to relate and communicate with women.

As noted sociologist David Popenoe explains,

Fathers are far more than just “second adults” in the home. Involved fathers – especially biological fathers – bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring.

Fathers and Mothers Teach Respect for the Opposite Sex

Research consistently shows married fathers are substantially less likely to abuse their wives or children than men in any other category.6 This means that boys and girls with married fathers in the home learn, by observation, how men should treat women.

Girls with involved fathers, therefore, are more likely to select for themselves good suitors and husbands because they have a proper standard by which to judge all candidates. Fathers themselves also help weed out bad candidates. Boys raised with fathers are more likely to be good husbands because they can emulate their fathers’ successes and learn from their failures.

The American Journal of Sociology finds that,

Societies with father-present patterns of child socialization produce men who are less inclined to exclude women from public activities than their counterparts in father-absent societies.7

Girls and boys with married mothers learn from their mothers what a healthy, respectful female relationship with men looks like. Girls who observe their mothers confidently and lovingly interacting with their fathers learn how to interact confidently with men.

Fathers Connect Children with Job Markets

A crucial point in life is the transition from financial dependence to independence. This is usually a slow process spanning the years from about 16 to 22 years of age. Fathers help connect their children, especially boys, to job markets as they enter adulthood. This is because fathers, more than mothers, are likely to have the kinds of diverse community connections needed to help young adults get their first jobs. When dad is not around, boys are not likely to have the connections necessary to land a summer job at the tire store or warehouse.


As noted sociologist David Popenoe explains,

Fathers are far more than just ‘second adults’ in the home. Involved fathers – especially biological fathers – bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring.8

Fathers bring good, essential things to the lives of children. Children are impoverished developmentally when they are deprived of their father’s love.

The Review of General Psychology concludes:

Many studies conclude that children with highly involved fathers, in relation to children with less involved fathers, tend to be more cognitively and socially competent, less inclined toward gender stereotyping, more empathetic, and psychologically better adjusted.9

Glenn T. Stanton is director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family.  This article was first published in 2004.

1Ronald Rohner and Robert Veneziano, “The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence,” Review of General Psychology, 5 (2001) 382-405.
2Kyle D. Pruett, Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, (New York: The Free Press, 2000), pp. 17-34.
3“Shuttle Diplomacy,” Psychology Today, July/August 1993, p. 15.
4As cited in Kyle D. Pruett, The Nurturing Father, (New York: Warner Books, 1987), p. 49.
5John Snarey, How Fathers Care for the Next Generation: A Four Decade Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 35-36.
6Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage, (New York: Doubleday, 2000); David Popenoe, Life Without Father, (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
7Scott Coltrane, “Father-Child Relationships and the Status of Women: A Cross-Cultural Study,” American Journal of Sociology, 93 (1988) p. 1088.
8David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 163.
9Rohner and Veneziano, 2001, p. 392.