In their new book Gender and Parenthood, Brad Wilcox and Kathleen Kovner Kline squarely face a current cultural trend that portrays the father as an optional family figure and heralds the concept of gender-neutral parenting. Gleaning the results from the latest research, the authors document the unique role that fathers play in the lives of their children and the changes in men associated with fatherhood that equip them to fulfill that role.
In a recent presentation at The Heritage Foundation, Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, highlighted the book’s key findings, including the impact that a father’s presence and involvement has on his children.
In the absence of an engaged father, for example, boys are more likely to engage in “compensatory” aggressive and predatory behavior and, correspondingly, to be delinquent or violent and spend time in prison. Similarly, girls without paternal involvement are significantly more likely to be sexually active and become pregnant in their teens. In addition, for both boys and girls, the “father factor” means a decreased likelihood of suffering depression.
As Wilcox explains, the impact of fathers can be traced to their unique input in several arenas. In the realm of play, rough-and-tumble activities impart lessons to children regarding how to handle their emotions and bodies—lessons that can extend to social relationships and behavior. Paternal interaction also tends to involve an element of challenge, encouraging offspring to take risks, be open to new experiences, and stand up for themselves. In addition, fathers tend to exhibit a style of discipline that carries a unique air of authority and firmness.
Yet the most trailblazing aspect of Gender and Parenthood is the unveiling of nascent research regarding the physiological psychological/social effects that fatherhood has on men.
Becoming a father is associated with a decrease in testosterone levels (associated with aggressive behavior and heightened libido)—a development that fosters an instinct to settle down and become domesticated, preparing the dad for his role in the nurture and guidance of his children.
Moreover, this biological change is accompanied by changes in behavior and social relationships and a tendency among fathers to work harder and to “attend bars less and church more.” In addition, fathers who live with their children are less likely to be depressed, and the dynamic between the physiological and psychological/social arenas creates a natural “feedback loop” that reinforces the benefits of fatherhood.
However, there is no “fatherhood premium” for unmarried fathers. In Wilcox’s words: “The evidence suggests that fatherhood is most likely to work its transformative magic on men when they live with their children and the mother of their children—normally in the married state.”
Sadly, more than one in five children in America live in homes without dads, and four in 10 are born outside marriage. To ensure that the next generation has the greatest opportunity to thrive and succeed, efforts should be made in both the cultural and policy arenas to promote marriage and intact, healthy families.
For more information, see “More Than Breadwinners: The Myriad Ways in Which Fathers Contribute to Family Well-Being.”