Innovative research focuses on family role of overlooked dads

BY Rebecca Jacobson  June 13, 2014 at 6:54 PM EST

The Balthazard Family around 1900. Photo by Flickr user Diane Cordell

The Balthazard Family around 1900. Photo by Flickr user Diane Cordell

Psychologists often focus on role of mothers in children’s development. Writer Paul Raeburn asks: when it comes to raising children, what does dad have to do with it?

Dads are not just a second-income in a family, he says, but their role in children’s psychological development has been overlooked. Raeburn’s book “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Overlooked Parent”, delves into the effects an active, present father has on his children. He found recent research that suggests that fathers’ love and involvement is a crucial factor in children’s well-being, particularly in his sons’ and daughters’ teenage years.

The book will be released this Father’s Day. Raeburn recently wrote about his findings in Scientific American.

A father’s presence during his daughter’s childhood influences her sexual development, physically and psychologically, Raeburn says. Studies by Bruce J. Ellis at the University of Arizona found that when fathers had a close relationship with their daughters in the first five to seven years of life, they engaged sex at a later age and had a lower risk of teen pregnancy. Fathers’ involvement teaches young girls a “reproductive strategy” early in life, explains psychologist Sarah E. Hill of Texas Christian University.

“When Dad is absent,” she said, “it basically provides young girls with a cue about what the future holds in terms of the mating system they are born into.”“When Dad is absent,” she said, “it basically provides young girls with a cue about what the future holds in terms of the mating system they are born into.”

If dad is absent, physically or emotionally, she learns that men don’t stick around, Raeburn writes. “Finding a man requires quick action. The sooner she is ready to have children, the better. She cannot consciously decide to enter puberty earlier, but her biology takes over, subconsciously,” he summarizes.

A father may give off pheromones that delay his daughter’s sexual development physically, he adds. Daughters who grew up with a highly-engaged dad started puberty later than girls with absent fathers. Ellis pointed to animal studies that found similar effects in other mammals: unrelated males’ presence spurred a female’s sexual development, but her father’s pheromones subdued it.

The results of the research are as interesting as the innovative studies that helped uncover the roles fathers play at home, both socially and biologically. In one instance, Raeburn details how Ellis wanted to have a controlled experiment with limited variables, where one daughter would be raised in an ideal family setting, while another was subjected to hardship. Raeburn explains how Ellis found a naturally occurring experiment:

Ellis came up with an innovative way to pose the question. He considered families in which divorced parents had two daughters separated by at least five years in age. When the parents divorced, the older sister would have had five more years with a father’s consistent presence than the younger sister. If father absence causes early puberty and risky behavior, then the younger daughter should show more of that behavior than her older sibling. Also, genes or the family’s environment would not confuse the results, because those would be the same for both daughters. It was close to a naturally occurring experiment, Ellis realized.

Father’s love is just as important as mother’s when it comes to emotional development, Raeburn says. He found research from Melanie Horn Mallers, a psychologist at California State University, Fullerton that showed sons with fond memories of dad were better able to handle day-to-day stress. And children who were accepted by both parents were more independent, emotionally stable and more positive than those who were not.

“Fatherhood is about helping children become happy and healthy adults, at ease in the world, and prepared to become fathers (or mothers) themselves. We often say that doing what is best for our kids is the most important thing we do,” Raeburn writes. “The new attention to fathers, and the research we have discussed here, should help all of us find our way.”