Father’s Day is this Sunday in Australia. This week kids have been spending ridiculous amounts of money at Father’s Day stalls in school, purchasing ‘thoughtful’ gifts. Pre-schoolers have made all manner of paper ties, pictures, and presents.
For many children – and lots of dads – Father’s Day is a day of celebration. Homemade cards will reassure fathers that they are the best dad in the world. New socks and ties will be unwrapped, breakfast will probably be in bed (burnt and/or soggy), and extra hugs will be shared around.
But not everyone has something to celebrate on Father’s Day.
There are many homes where dad is not spoken of. Or perhaps he’s not there. About 17 percent of Australian children are being raised in homes where dad doesn’t live with them.
While the circumstances surrounding dad’s departure are often complicated and emotive, our kids are rarely better off without their dads. And research shows that dads do better when they’re with their kids. Decades of research affirms that what good dads do is uniquely important and all too often ignored or missed.
Dr Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia has co-edited a recent book, Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives, and points out that fathers provide unique and distinct experiences for their children that build resilience and wellbeing.
1. Fathers get physical
Dads generally play and roughhouse with their children in ways that mums and older siblings don’t. They create excitement around physicality, but also predictability. They give their children opportunities to learn about masculinity without fear of being hurt – well not too much, and certainly not on purpose.
2. Fathers encourage risk
When it comes to their children, fathers are less risk-averse than mothers. They encourage their children to climb that tree, jump off that wall, or ride down that hill. They promote taking on challenges and push their children to be more independent. As a general rule, dads dislike cotton wool and bubble wrap around their kids.
3. Fathers protect
Fathers generally offer a physicality that children feel safe with. Their physical size, their strength, and their confidence or ‘presence’ gives children a secure base, a place to come back to and feel safe.
4. Fathers discipline
Research shows that dads are generally firmer with discipline than mums. They’re also more consistent with discipline and limits.
While it’s true that mums can play and roughhouse, encourage independence, protect, and discipline frequently and firmly, there seems to be something different about what dads do and how they do it. And it’s these differences that appear to lead to important and positive outcomes for children, especially girls.
For example, recent research from the University of Bristol shows that, in a sample of over 5000 children, girls whose fathers were absent during their early childhood were more likely to become depressed in their teen years than girls whose fathers remained in the home. Other research indicates daddy-less daughters are more likely to be sexually active at younger ages than their friends whose fathers are present.
Research also tells us that both boys and girls do better at school when fathers are present, and enjoy more social competence and success. The list goes on and on.
Many who are reading this are wonderful people who were raised without a father present. Many reading this are amazing mums, raising remarkable children without a father in the home. And most of us know great families who are doing it without dad.
But just because it can be done doesn’t mean that fathers don’t count – or that we should tell fathers they are secondary in their children’s lives. On the contrary, research tells us that our children need their fathers as much as ever before.
True, some dads need to step up, whether they live at home or are nowhere to be found. And yes, many people have tried and tried to make it work, but it hasn’t.
According to the research, absent fathers can affect their children’s wellbeing. Yes, we all know cases where that hasn’t happened, and children have thrived, regardless. And the mums who are making it work should be commended. They are amazing, and are doing and giving their all to make sure that dad’s absence doesn’t annihalate their children’s future.
But where possible, let’s keep kids involved with their dads in positive and meaningful ways, because those children are far more likely to flourish.
And dad will too.
What are the special things dads and kids do together in your family?