The Transformative Power of Fatherhood

An NRO Interview
Why dads make a difference to their children and communities

As we prepare to celebrate Father’s Day this Sunday, National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez discussed the importance of fathers and fatherhood with W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: This week, the Institute for American Values, the Center of the American Experiment, and the Institute for Family Studies released a new report, “Mother Bodies, Father Bodies.” The report asks (and answers): “Do mothers and fathers experience parenthood in the same ways?” Isn’t the answer to this question obvious?

W. BRADFORD WILCOX: Well, not really. What is obvious to anyone is that women are changed much more visibly and physically than men by the experience of pregnancy. But what’s fascinating about the new science on fatherhood, spotlighted in the report, is that we’re learning more about the ways in which men are transformed physically, socially, and emotionally by parenthood.

A recent study from the Philippines suggests, for instance, that men’s testosterone drops after they become parents. The figure below shows that Filipino men who got partnered and then had children experienced the largest drops in testosterone over time. This pattern suggests that men are being prepared by Mother Nature, provided they live with the mother of their kids, to settle down and become more attentive to their family. In the words of psychologist Anne Storey, research like this “suggests that hormones may play a role in priming males to provide care for young.” The growing body of research on dads, then, indicates that fatherhood is a bigger deal for men, even at the biological level, than we have appreciated up to this point.

LOPEZ: How else do men’s lives change when they become fathers?

WILCOX: After kids come along, men are more likely to be engaged civically in their communities in activities ranging from youth soccer to church. Furthermore, they typically work harder and earn more money after they become dads, provided that they live with the mother of their children. One study found that “married, residential, biological fatherhood is associated with wage gains of about 4 percent, but unmarried residential fathers, nonresidential fathers, and stepfathers do not receive a fatherhood premium.” So, men become more engaged at work and in civil society in the wake of assuming the role of fatherhood.
 

LOPEZ: What about the children? Do fathers play a distinctive role in children’s lives?

WILCOX: In the report, we acknowledge that mothers and fathers can and often do perform similar roles in providing the affection, attention, and discipline that kids need to thrive. The report also notes, however, that dads tend to take on a distinctive role when it comes to providing for, playing with, and challenging their children to confront life’s difficulties and opportunities. For instance, when it comes to providing, dads earn, on average, about 69 percent of the income in today’s married families. And, regarding their distinctive approach to play, the report notes that “fathers are more likely to engage in surprising and rough-and-tumble play. They chase, tickle, and wrestle, especially with their preschool-age children.” Indeed, research by psychologist Ross Parke indicates that children who regularly engage in this type of play with their fathers end up being more popular at school.

Dads also help to engender a sense of self-control in their children. For instance, one study found that boys from intact, married families are about half as likely to end up in jail or prison by the time they turn 30, compared to boys from single-mother families, even after controlling for a range of socioeconomic factors, as the figure below indicates.

LOPEZ: So, fathers play a role in fostering a safer social environment?

WILCOX: Yes, both at the individual and neighborhood level, dads seem to help create a safer social environment. Indeed, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has found that one of the better predictors of violence at the neighborhood level is the presence of large numbers of fatherless homes. He observed, “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of variations in urban violence across cities in the United States.”

And as I noted in a recent Washington Post article, the presence of a father is even related to issues of sexual and physical abuse. Children are significantly less likely to be physically and sexually abused when they live with their own married father, especially compared to children living with their mother and an unrelated male boyfriend. Clearly, biological, married fathers tend to be more invested in the welfare of their own children than men who are not tied to kids by marriage or blood.
 

LOPEZ: You point out that mothers tend to benefit from the presence of a father. How so?

WILCOX: Mothers tend to mother their children better when dad is in the home. Married mothers are more involved, more affectionate, and more likely to monitor their kids, on average, than are single mothers. They also enjoy closer relationships with their kids. We’re talking here about averages, of course, because many single moms do a great job and enjoy great relationships with their kids. It’s just that, on average, married moms enjoy closer relationships with their children.

It’s important, here, also to acknowledge that dads who are not engaged, practically and emotionally, in the life of the home aren’t of much help to moms. Indeed, when married mothers are unhappy in their marital relationship, they seem to be worse off. So, it’s crucial for married fathers to do their best to be attentive, affectionate, engaged in the practical work of the home, and thankful towards their wives.
 

LOPEZ: Can social-scientific evidence about the importance of sex to parenting help with a healthy cultural reset on how we think about it – and teach our kids about it?

WILCOX: The report stresses that regular sex and cuddling (!) cement the physical and emotional ties binding mothers and fathers to one another. It’s clear that regular physical affection is important for a happy marriage. So, sure, this seems like a good lesson to pass on to the kids.
 

LOPEZ: This Father’s Day, is there a gift that will help a dad most with his father’s brain and body?

WILCOX: A simple and sincere “thank you” from his family is all that many dads want this Father’s Day, I would say. It matters a lot for dads, especially in a society where fathers are often belittled or minimized in the popular culture, to have their sacrifices and love recognized and appreciated. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.