TIME Opinion

You’ve Come a Long Way Daddy

Girl playing outside in the summer
Brian Braiker

A new book asks whether fathers matter. And this dad wonders why we're still asking that question.

Do fathers matter? On the face of it the question is a preposterous one. You might as well be asking “Are friends important?” or “Who needs trees, anyway?”

But Do Fathers Matter? happens to be the title of a new book by author and award-winning science journalist Paul Raeburn. And while the title seems to indulge in a bit of trolling, it turns out the book does a nice job of filling in a few gaps no one completely realized were gaping.

Science has historically focused only on the mother’s role in child-rearing. Raising children, after all, is women’s work, right? It’s a cliche that has taken root in modern society but biologically, this is simply not the case.

Raeburn points us to the titi monkey as an example: “Titi monkey fathers provide food for their offspring and follow mothers around all day, so that whenever the babies are not nursing the fathers can carry them on their backs,” Raeburn writes. “The father carries his infant 90 percent of the time.”

The baby monkeys, in return, are very attached to their fathers. Human fathers, while maybe not quite as dedicated, remain the most committed mammalian fathers of any species on Earth, Raeburn goes on to tell us (tantalizingly leaving open the prospect of some kind of reptilian Superdad.)

Look no further than the latest ad by Cheerios, which comes with its own hashtag: #HowToDad. In it a father of four gives his only mildly-grating manifesto for manly parenting — which lives in the Venn diagram sweet spot between being “awesome” and “responsible.” We’ve come a long way from Mr. Mom.

But science hasn’t been keeping up. The result is a body of knowledge that fails to take into account half of the child-rearing populace. I personally can’t fault science for spending an inordinate amount of time looking at ladies, but it’s not very scientific at the end of the day: A 2005 survey of 514 studies on adolescent and child psychology, for example, revealed that almost half of the research ignored fathers. Only 11 percent made fathers the exclusive focus, Raeburn tells us.

To be fair, there’s been some progress: Before 1970 less than a fifth of scientific studies about parental bonding took dad’s role into account. And minor though it is, Raeburn mines the progress well. One takeaway is that we dads have an impact on our babies before they’re even born.

A bit of context. Here is what progressive fatherhood looked like in 1986: “We were well prepared for natural childbirth, which means that no drugs can be given to the female during delivery. The father, however, can have all he wants,” joked Bill Cosby in his book “Fatherhood.” If only that were true.

“Research is showing that a father’s environment, his behavior and even his appearance can have a substantial effect on fetal health,” Raeburn writes. “And on the health of his grandchildren.”

Good lord. Even my appearance? Let me now use this public forum to apologize now to my grandkids for last year’s mustache and afro combination that I rocked for a solid six months.

Fortunately for my kids I also do the dishes on the regular. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, found that fathers who perform household chores are more likely to bring up daughters who aspire to careers in business, legal and other professions. I am dying for a corollary study to conclude that mothers who shout at the TV during football games and spend a lot of time in the tool shed raise boys that are more likely to go into ballet instruction.

But the research, conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada, does dovetail with other findings that suggest girls who grow up in the presence of warm, supportive fathers tend to begin puberty later and are less inclined to engage in high-risk sexual behavior than daughters of absentee dads.

This “absentee” word hits home for me. I have been separated from the mother of my kids for nearly five years, a significant chunk of their lives. As a single father with joint custody I see my girls every day, including days when they don’t stay at mine, and am incredibly grateful for it. But I worry all the time about the impact of the breakup on my kids. So I am hyper vigilant.

I take heart in much of Raeburn’s book, not just because I like to cook and find doing dishes therapeutic. He points to one study that found that, while both parents play with children the same amount of time, Dad is — for lack of a better word — the fun parent. Father’s play is “more physical and idiosyncratic,” and babies tend to like it.

“Physical and idiosyncratic” is a diplomatic way, at best, to describe the dance parties I instigate at the breakfast table. Babies (and 6-year-olds) may like it, but the day is coming when my daughters become teenagers and “idiosyncratic” becomes “idiotic.” Oh how I will delight in embarrassing them, though.

It turns out Dad’s play is important when it comes to learning too, providing a critical boost to language development. Premature infants from disadvantaged families had higher IQs if fathers played with them and helped care for them, Raeburn writes. Studies have found that fathers are more likely to stretch their young children’s vocabularies. I can certainly boast that I’ve introduced a few four letter words into my girls’ verbal arsenal.

I’ve interviewed my daughters in this space before, so I thought it might be interesting to see what they had to say about the very question posed in Raeburn’s title: Do fathers matter?

Unfortunately, today got away from us. We woke up early and cuddled while we watched “Little Shop of Horrors” together — not entirely age-appropriate, but hey!, I’m idiosyncratic. Then it was time for breakfast (Waffles! Bacon! Plums! No screens!), then showers. I took them to get a birthday present before a friend’s party. After that it was playground time and swings and a water balloon fight and more swings followed by tears over a lost earring and much consoling and hugs and, finally, dinner.

I guess in the middle of all that I forgot to ask them if their father mattered.

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