Why Dads Matter, According To Science

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Dad holding little girl's hand

How much do dads matter in children’s development? It was once thought that fathers only had a slight impact on their kids. Mothers were thought to have the major role. However, this view is beginning to change.

“There’s this whole idea that grew out of past research that dads really don’t have direct effects on their kids, that they just kind of create the tone for the household and that moms are the ones who affect their children’s development,” Claire Vallotton, Michigan State University

Why Dads Matter For Language & Mental Health

Michigan State University found that how fathers experience parental stress has a lasting impact on their children. In a study of 730 families in various parts of the USA, the researchers found that parental stress felt by dads could have a harmful effect on their kids cognitive and language development. Toddlers aged two to three showed less language development with stressed dads. The effect was worse for boys than for girls.

Similarly, the mental health of fathers has a lasting effect on their kids. Toddlers with dads suffering from depression are more likely to have poorer social skills at the ages of 10 to 11. For toddlers, depression in fathers is a bigger risk factor for developing social skills than depression in mothers.

Why Dads Matter For Intellect And Well-being

A study by Concordia University in Canada, found that dads can improve their kids intelligence and behaviour. How? Just by being involved.

“Compared with other children with absentee dads, kids whose fathers were active parents in early and middle childhood had fewer behaviour problems and higher intellectual abilities as they grew older — even among socio-economically at-risk families,” Erin Pouget, Concordia University

The research assessed 138 children between the ages of 3-5 and again aged 9-13. The kids’ teachers also gave independent observations of the children. Children with active dads suffered from fewer emotional problems. Also, they tended to have fewer behavioural problems and they had higher intellectual abilities.

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Why Dads Matter For Persistence

Research by Brigham Young University found that fathers play a very big role in teaching kids an important life skill.

“There are relatively few studies that highlight the unique role of fathers. This research […] helps to establish that traits such as persistence – which can be taught – are key to a child’s life success,” Laura Padilla-Walker, Brigham Young University

The research followed nearly 700 American families. The researchers found that authoritative dads helped their kids to stick with projects for longer. Note, authoritative parenting is not the same as authoritarian. The researchers describe three tenets of authoritative parenting:

  1. Children feel loved by their father
  2. Rules are explained and the reasoning behind them is clear. Accountability is emphasized.
  3. Children are allowed appropriate levels of freedom

The trick to being an authoritative dad is to lay down reasonable rules and allow your kids to safely explore the world. And to be there when they inevitably scrape a knee. In turn, kids learn how to fall down and get up again. Persistence is necessary to achieve.

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The Fall Of The Traditional Family

So dads do matter. Whew!

But not every family follows the traditional model. A 2013 study of US families found that less than half conformed to the traditional family structure. Only 46% of families had two married opposite-sex parents in their first marriage. The figure was 73% in 1960.

Fifteen percent of the families had two parents with one or both remarried. Thirty four percent were single parent families and 5% had no parent at home. Same sex families were not included as there were no data to compare to similar studies in 1960 & 1980.

Still, even if a dad is not living with his kids, he can still play an active part. The researchers at Brigham Young University stressed that dads can help build their kids persistence, even if they live apart.

“Fathers should continue to try and be involved in their children’s lives and engage in high quality interactions, even if the quantity of those interactions might be lower than is desirable,” Padilla-Walker, Brigham Young University

And kids who grow up without dads can also thrive. The researchers in Concordia University state that kids without dads do not necessarily suffer.

“While our study examined the important role dads play in the development of their children, kids don’t necessarily do poorly without their fathers. […] Some kids with no contact with fathers, or with distant dads, do well intellectually and emotionally.”” stresses co-author Lisa A. Serbin

So, while dads matter they are not essential. But the research is clear – if you are a dad, then be a good dad. It’s the least your kids deserve!


  • NCBI- Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress Through School
  • MSU – Dads play key role in child development
  • EurekAlert! – Hands-on dads give kids an edge
  • BYU news – Persistence is learned from fathers, study shows
  • Pew Research Centre – Fewer than half of U.S. kids today live in a ‘traditional’ family

Why Dads Matter, According To Science
Article Name
Why Dads Matter, According To Science
Is fatherhood important to a child's development? It was once thought that fathers only played a peripheral role, but new research reveals why dads matter.
Dermot Barry
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