Why dads are so important

Loving father
Loving father

Let's talk about the impact of a father figure on children and their development.

You’re probably aware that children who grow up in homes without fathers seem to start life with a huge disadvantage. Some reports show that these children struggle to learn as well as those who grow up in a home with a father, they have lower self-esteem and are more likely to suffer from depression.

This effect seems to cause five times the average rate of teenage suicide, and the majority of homeless and runaway children, high school dropouts, teenage drug abusers and youths in prison come from fatherless homes.

Here in South Africa, current stats are hard to find, but we do know that SA has one of the lowest marriage rates in Africa and one of the highest divorce rates in the world. Figures from 1998 showed that 42% of South African children lived with their mothers only.

35% of households were headed by women and these had around half the income of those headed by men. According to the HSRC, over 50% of fathers are either deceased or absent from their children’s homes. Around 40% of babies born are born to teenage mothers who are highly unlikely to have much help with parenting from the father of the child. We also know that many thousands of parents have died of AIDS, so the overall picture may be even more concerning.

Is this paternal absence that surprising?

One argument is that men aren’t really that well equipped to parent. Given that women can bear fewer children than men can sire, it makes evolutionary sense for women to parent more closely. Men, on the other hand, if left to their own devices, tend more towards promiscuity and golf, and less towards active involvement in parenting. Marriage is the cultural regulation that historically tried to keep dads honest and involved, along with the high value that society places on parenting and legitimacy of children.

That’s not to say that there aren’t fathers who take their parenting responsibilities seriously – it’s just that without serious cultural conditioning we males would probably be bumping passing women on the head with our clubs and dragging them off to our caves, rather than changing nappies. We’d never admit that to you, though.

So what does Dad bring to the family that makes him so important?

That is, apart from the ability to keep the bar fridge empty of beers? It seems to be a number of things.

The most obvious is financial wellbeing. It is estimated that in the US there is a 21% drop in income in a fatherless home and usually a coincident increase in costs which translates into financial strain on both mother and child.

Then there’s the role of supporter, someone to share the load, to experience the highs and lows with and to be a shoulder when needed. Plus there’s the different perspective that fathers bring to parenting – we’re rougher and our play tends to be more competitive. We’re more likely to stress independence and risk-taking as opposed to Mum’s more collaborative approach. It turns out that both are necessary for well-rounded development, so are highly complementary. Dad’s parenting tends to feed the need for a child’s sense of self, Mom’s a sense of belonging or community.

Babies need love and attention and they bond where parents are warm and involved. Given these requirements, they form attachments with both parents, even where one parent has to leave the home to go to work. Bonding with more than one caregiver gives them security and helps them in relationships later in life.

In the end, though, all of the above assumes that the interaction between mother and father is harmonious. A marriage filled with stress and fighting is damaging in its own way and will affect a child for the rest of its life. It was the ever-prolific Anon. who said “The best thing a man can do for his child is to love its mother” and she was right.

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