Thirteen-year-old Donovan had always been a good student. But when he hit the seventh grade, his grades started slipping, and he began getting detentions. One day, his mother, who was raising her son alone after leaving an abusive marriage, received a call from his principal: Donovan had punched a classmate in the eye and was going to be suspended. Like many children without an actively engaged father or father figure, Donovan had begun tuning out—and acting up.
“Children who are well-bonded and loved and whose fathers are involved tend to have fewer behavioral problems, are more likely to have higher self-esteem, and develop better relationships both with their peers and romantically,” says psychotherapist Alison Varianides, executive director of Westchester Psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.
Study after study bears this out, and “when you look at the [academic] achievement measurements, you find in every study that when a male [parent or father figure] is actively engaged, those measuring sticks come out a little higher,” says Lex Kessler, male engagement chair for the Westchester-East Putnam Region (W-EPR) PTA.
According to research from the US Department of Education, children with actively involved fathers are 43 percent more likely to earn A’s in school and 33 percent less likely to repeat a grade than those without engaged dads. Other studies have shown that children with involved fathers graduate at higher rates, score higher on standardized tests, and have a more positive attitude towards school.
They’re also less likely to have problems with drugs or alcohol, and, according to a study published in the UK journal The Lancet in 2003, children of single-parent homes are more than twice as likely to commit suicide. According to the US Census Bureau, 90 percent of homeless children and runaways are from fatherless homes, and, according to the Center for Disease Control, 85 percent of kids who exhibit behavior disorders come from fatherless homes. Studies have also shown that kids with a positive father figure are 80 percent less likely to land in jail and 75 percent less likely to conceive a child outside of marriage. Even when a child is grown, having had an actively involved male figure during childhood continues to pay dividends, leading to higher levels of success in their careers; a better chance of having a strong, lasting marriage; and the ability to handle stress.
Fathers influence their kids’ lives in many ways—first and foremost by being a role model. “The role of a father, especially when it comes to boys, is teaching what it means to be a man and providing a good, healthy model for the child,” says Bob Milich, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Croton-on-Hudson. “Somebody who can be effective at discipline, but not necessarily punishment—setting limits and being consistent in a warm, supportive manner.”
It is well known that a child, especially a son, will emulate and explore his father’s interests in things like sports teams and personal style. But Varianides believes a father’s greatest impact on his son’s life may be in the child’s emotional development. “Boys look to their fathers for how they share their emotions and what they should do in terms of masculinity,” she says.
Dr. Milich agrees. “A father’s role in teaching, especially boys, appropriate emotional expression is very important,” he says.
“Having my son’s father as an active and involved dad truly benefits my son.” —Antoinette Darden-Cintron, W-ERP (Westchester-East Region Putnam)
Likewise, “If you have a father who is not a good role model, then that is what a child will integrate,” says Dr. Milich. “They will follow in those steps.” Alex Gonzales-Harsha, a Port Chester resident, former Somers High School student, and Cornell graduate who is now in graduate school at Rutgers, says that a father who’s a great role model “leaves no doubt in your mind that you can also become a good man, and also leaves no doubt that he will support you along the way.”
A father can be very involved in his child’s life, even if he doesn’t live under the same roof, as in the case of divorced parents. “As a divorced parent that has a successful co-parenting relationship with my ex-husband, I see how having my son’s father as an active and involved dad truly benefits my son,” says Antoinette Darden-Cintron, W-ERP PTA region director, whose 13-year-old son, Elijah, is a student at Woodlands Middle School in Greenburgh. “My son is well-rounded, smart, fun, and a great student. Having his father involved in his school life is integral to his development.”
But what about fathers who are abusive or neglectful, or divorced mothers who don’t have such cordial relationships with their ex-husbands? “I would say it is better for a child to not have a father figure at all rather than a negative one,” says Varianides. “While the absence of something leaves you questioning and trying to figure out how you’re supposed to create these relationships and roles, that’s better than growing up in an abusive household or having a father with substance abuse [problems]. Growing up with that can lead to a host of issues.”
A father’s job as role model for his children is not limited to his son, says Kessler. “A father is just as important in a daughter’s life.”
Girls look to their fathers for protection, and also to see how a man should treat a woman, according to Varianides. “The first relationship they see is Mom and Dad. If a young girl sees her father always being respectful of her mother, always being there and loving her, then she will want that in a relationship as well,” she says. “But if she grows up without a father figure, she’s left to figure it out on her own and may end up in an abusive relationship because she doesn’t know what a good one looks like.”
Kessler concurs: “Even prior to kindergarten, the father is providing that role model of a healthy, loving, respectful relationship that a woman will be searching for later in life.”
“There is an emotional difference in the way fathers parent,” says Stacey Slater, a child psychologist in Chappaqua. “They often have a more matter-of-fact approach” than mothers. This is why fathers tend to hold children to limits and often play the role of disciplinarian.
“The father’s ability to build character and model character traits [can be] different than the mother’s. In most relationships, the father and mother have complementary character traits,” says Kessler. “Males are generally a little more black-and-white and women are a lot more in the gray.”
Ultimately, it’s the partnership of the mother and father that can have the strongest effect. “When a father is involved in a child’s education, even just to the extent of saying, ‘How’d you do on the test?’ at the dinner table, those children will do better in school,” says Kessler. “This is a scientific fact that’s been proven and re-proven.”
According to a 2011 Census Bureau report, only 20 percent of American households were married couples with children, down from approximately 25 percent in 2000 and 43 percent in 1950. These days, kids may have a stay-at-home dad, a single dad, two full-time working parents, or a stepdad. Or a child may have two dads. “American families are changing so much that kids are looking to both of their parents [equally] now for how they should develop and what roles they should have,” says Varianides. “Fathers are becoming as involved and as important a part of everyday family life as mothers.”
It’s a whole different dynamic, according to Kessler. “Now I’ve got two parents both involved. That’s a huge statement, rather than, ‘one of my parents cares and one doesn’t.’”