Fathers shape children all of their lives

I was blessed with a good dad. He spent a lot of time with my sisters and me, he wanted us to feel good about ourselves and to be successful, and he took us on many adventures and encouraged us to create our own.

All of us with great dads know what mental health professionals are finding more and more in their research: That having a good dad is a key component to having a happy life.

The National Institute of Mental Health, American Psychological Association and other research facilities throughout the country have been studying fathering since the early 1950s. In the late 1950s Oxford University in England began replicating some of the research that was being conducted in the U.S. to see how fathering affected children in their country. Both research projects followed thousands of people in these studies for several decades.

In the 1990s another large research project between a U.S. and a New Zealand University focused on fathering effects on teen girls. Interestingly, mothering has been studied about 10 times more than fathering. In general, these studies found that good fathering is related to more happy and successful lives for their children, beginning in infancy and even playing out when people are in their retirement years.

To study good fathering, good fathers have to first be identified and then defined. Research tends to find children and adults who are well adjusted and who think their father did a good job raising them. The term "involved father" has been used to describe this group of fathers. The skills related to "involved fathering" entail dads who regularly read to their children, take them on outings, are interested in their education, and who take an equal role to the mother in managing their children's life.

Research tends to indicate that it is not as important whether the father lives with their child or not or whether they are a biological father. In research studies, these involved fathers are compared to fathers who are either uninvolved, less involved, or who are involved but have a hard time interacting in emotionally positive ways with their children.

Sadly, even involved fathers tend to be more involved with sons than daughters. Fathers who are involved when children are young tend to be involved throughout their lives, and conversely, fathers who are less involved when their children are young tend to be less involved throughout their lives.

Involved fathers tend to have less traditional child-rearing beliefs, are more sensitive when playing with their children, are older, and report being more happily married than less involved fathers. Involved fathers also work fewer hours, have higher self-esteem, are more psychologically adapted, and are less depressed and angry. Moms who report being happily married tend to have partners more involved in caregiving their children. None of this is a big shock, but it is shocking to see how important all of this is to the well-being of children.

For instance, children who are close to their fathers when they are young do better on exams and overall academic performance, even during college years. The more involved fathers are with their daughters, the less likely their daughters are to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental-health problems throughout their lives.

Likewise, the more fathers are involved with their sons, the less trouble their sons get into. And, teenagers who report feeling close to their fathers as children report more satisfaction as adults in marital relationships. Finally, the more nurturing a father is toward his child; i.e., talks with them about their feelings and about the difficulties in their lives, the more likely the child is to become intellectually developed, to feel socially competent, to empathize with others, and to feel in control of him or herself and life decisions.

Unfortunately, the less a father is involved in his adolescent girl's life the more likely she is to become pregnant as a teen. The researchers of this study hypothesize that lesser-involved fathers may unintentionally be sending the message to their daughter that they aren't important to men. This may lead them to seek approval from men which then leads to unstable bonds with men in general.

A recent project studied 3,000 adults between the ages of 25 to 74. This study found that the emotional well-being of these adults was related to current life circumstances, but also equally related to subjects feeling supported by their parents when they were children. The less involved their parents were when they were growing up the more likely the adults were to report depression and to have hypertension, arthritis and urinary problems. The authors of this research hypothesize that good parents "teach" their children about developing good and supportive relationships and that these lessons play-out over a lifetime in both emotional and physical health.

So, as Father's Day approaches let's all send our warm regards to those involved dads out there. A great dad is like a pebble dropping in a pond: The ripples that continue to flow long after the pebble has dropped are similar to the positive effects you will have on generations and generations of children, moms and dads. You couldn't do anything more important! And, for those dads who are currently uninvolved or who struggle to connect positively with their children, it is never too late to change your relationship: You will never be sorry you tried and your children will likely welcome you with open arms.

As one wise man once said, "No man on their death bed ever said he wished he would have spent more time at the office."

Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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