With more and more children in the U.S. being raised by single moms, it’s crucial that we validate those mothers in their ability to do it well. They can and do. But in our efforts to be supportive of single moms, it’s important that we not become convinced that fathers are expendable. They’re not. Children who are lucky enough to have involved fathers are children who get added benefits that a father can provide.
It’s been said many times: The best gift a father can give his children is a positive relationship with their mother. Those who treat their partners with love and respect teach their boys how to treat women well. They teach their girls that they are deserving of love and respect by the men who love them. They teach both their sons and daughters how to be in a loving, mutually supportive relationship with the other sex.
Fathers tend to be more physical during play and to encourage more risk-taking than mothers. When done safely, a father’s tendency to get on the floor and roughhouse teaches children to manage excitement and unpredictability and to be more confident about their physical abilities. By learning to handle their bodies as well as their emotions, kids become more physically competent and self-confident.
Children with involved fathers also tend to develop better verbal skills and do better academically. This may sound counterintuitive. After all, aren’t women generally more verbal than men? But studies have shown that fathers are more likely to emphasize the importance of achievement and exploration while moms are more focused on nurturing and safety. As a result, kids with involved fathers are more likely to push themselves to meet academic as well as physical challenges.
Girls who have a positive relationship with their fathers are less likely to get pregnant as teens. The statistics are startling. Girls without such a relationship are more than twice as likely to get pregnant. Girls who have a good to excellent relationship with their fathers are less likely to be so needy of male love and support that they become prematurely sexually active.
Boys, too, benefit from having a dad around. Studies have shown that boys whose fathers value having a high-quality relationship with them are about half as likely to be in trouble with the law. One possible reason is that fathers are more likely than mothers to deal with misbehavior immediately and certainly. Mothers generally try to be understanding and to reason with their kids. Fathers generally assert some authority. When they do so with fairness and firmness, the boys are appropriately impressed and are less likely to get in trouble in school or the community.
Finally, kids with involved fathers are less likely to be poor. In 2011, 12 percent of children in married-couple families were living in poverty compared to 44 percent of children in mother-only families. No, money isn’t everything. But it can make life less stressful and opens up more positive opportunities.
If there has been a history of abuse by a father, the mother must of course keep her children safe. Depending on the situation, it is sometimes best for a father to have no contact or only supervised contact with the kids. But short of such concerns, a dad doesn’t have to be perfect to be a good enough-to-excellent dad. Even if he doesn’t live with or love the kids’ mother, his role in his children’s lives, as illustrated by the benefits listed above, is important.
Effective dads do the following:
- Love your kids’ mother. Show it with affection and respectful interactions. If you and their mother don’t love each other and can’t live together, you both must get over your disappointment and anger and focus on the kids’ well-being. People who were lousy partners can, nonetheless, be great (or at least good) parents. Each parent must give the other a chance. Never put the kids in the middle of any dispute.
- Set aside your own agenda and be a dad. That means getting off the computer or away from the TV and engaging actively with the kids. It means talking to the kids about their activities and meeting their friends. The kids need to know that you care about what they think and do.
- Spend regular focused time alone with each of your children as well as with the group. They each need you to know them as well as love them. To have impact, you need to have meaningful involvement with each as an individual.
- Enjoy your kids. Be physically active and provide exciting experiences. Get on the floor (or in the dirt) and play! Fathers play differently than mothers do.
- Support academic, physical and artistic efforts. Ask about their schoolwork. Celebrate successes. Provide help when it is needed. Participate in teacher conferences. Go to school events. Same for efforts in a gym or on the field or at concert performances. Be there as a witness. Celebrate their efforts and interests. Support them in disappointments. The kids will remember. They are also likely to repeat this kind of connection with their own kids someday.
- Confront misbehavior directly. Kids need parents who provide reasonable limits as well as attention and love. Be fair but firm. They may resist. They may complain. But kids who do well in life are those whose fathers (as well as mothers) provide a model for self-discipline and who expect kids to behave responsibly.
An involved father isn’t just a second adult in his kids’ lives. He’s a male role model, teacher, counselor and source of emotional and material support. Great dads, even dads who are mere mortals who are just good enough, do make a difference in kids’ growth and development. The self-respect, love and admiration of his kids are rewards available to any man who fathers with constancy and care.
Father and daughter photo available from Shutterstock