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What's So Special About Dads

Published on Psychology Today.

When it comes to raising children and being a parent, usually most of the attention goes to moms. And why wouldn’t it? We’re the ones that endure pregnancy, labor, nursing, and most of us take on at least half of the child rearing responsibilities, if not more. Because of this emphasis on motherhood, coupled with the fact that women are getting married less often and having children later in life, several celebrities and writers have pointed out that women don’t actually need men to raise children. In fact, sperm banks have made it so that women don’t even need a man to get pregnant (unless that man is her physician). As a feminist, I tend to agree—women don’t need men to raise children. But, does that mean dads aren’t important? Do dads provide children with something that moms don't?

Research suggests that dads are in fact important, and in a number of ways. First, their presence in a household is associated with fewer behavioral problems in children. For example, children raised in homes without fathers are at greater risk for delinquent behavior and for committing a crime than children raised in homes where a dad is present. Similarly, girls raised in homes without dads are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers than girls who live with their fathers.

This research does suggest that it is important to have dads around, but you could chalk some of these findings up to the benefits of having two parents versus one, regardless of whether or not one of them is a “dad.” There is evidence that any household with just one parent puts children more at risk for numerous negative outcomes than households with two parents. For example, children who live with one parent tend to get less help with their homework and they get less encouragement in school than children from two-parent households. Some of the differences between these two-parent and one-parent households can be accounted for by factors like income, since two adults usually bring in more money than one. But even when you account for these factors, there still seems to be something about having a dad around that reduces risk, above and beyond what can be accounted for by the absence of a second set of hands.

The most convincing evidence that dads are important comes from research on how dads interact with their kids, and most specifically, how dads’ interactions differ from those of moms. First of all, dads play differently with their kids, and tend to play more physically than moms do. I can personally attest to this. Have you ever witnessed the “throw the baby up the air” game? It’s that game where you throw a baby up in the air, and the baby subsequently explodes with laughter and glee. I hate this game. I don’t play it, partly because my son is 95th percentile in weight, but mostly because it’s scary. It’s a game my son plays with his dad. Despite my trepidation, research suggests that physical play like this is good for kids, and paternal physical play is associated with positive outcomes for the child.

Second, dads have also been shown to encourage children to take more risks than moms do. For example, dads might encourage kids to try riding a bike on their own, or to jump off the high dive at the pool. Importantly, dads don’t encourage risky behavior in a reckless way; they tend to provide a safe and secure environment with supervision while encouraging kids not to be afraid of new things. It’s not that moms don’t encourage their kids to try new things that might be potentially scary, it’s just that dads tend to do it more.

So it turns out that dads do bring something special to the table. Yes, women can raise children on their own without the presence of a man. Further, two woman are perfectly capable of raising a child without a man as well: According to a large community study, lesbian couples raise children that are just as well adjusted as heterosexual couples with a father. So dads aren’t necessary for raising happy and healthy children. But, good dads do provide children with something that most mothers generally don’t. They rough house, they teach kids to take risks, and they provide children with an extra layer of support. My husband is a wonderful father: He is patient, kind, attentive, and he provides my son with something that I can’t—a dad.

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