When Paul Raeburn became a father for the first time, he had one piece of advice to go on. "The most important things to do," a colleague told him, are "to tell your kids you love them and to spend time with them." Several years later, he remarried, had a second set of kids, and was determined to learn more about fatherhood than the basic guidelines he'd followed the first time around.
"We all think we know a lot about fathers and what they do for their kids, but what do we really know?" he told me in an interview.
A science writer who'd published books on mental illness and space exploration, Raeburn did a comprehensive survey of scientific research on fatherhood. The result is his book Do Fathers Matter?. Raeburn found that fathers play a huge role in their children's lives, even before they're born.
"Fathers have much more effect on children than even I would have guessed — and I was biased in favor of fathers to start with," he said.
Raeburn also had to confront the dark flipside of a father's influence on his kids: what happens when he's not involved in their lives. The problem of disengaged dads is real, and there isn't a clear solution for how to fix it.
Fathers offer tremendous benefits to their children
Do Fathers Matter? is structured as a timeline of a child's life. Early chapters address conception and pregnancy, and then the book journeys through infancy, early childhood, and adolescence. For each stage of development, Raeburn describes how a father contributes.
In pregnancy, genes passed along by the father help a fetus draw in more nutrients from its mother. These genes allow the fetus to release hormones that elevate its mother's blood pressure, increasing the amount of blood that goes to the fetus, and to raise its mother's blood sugar so more sugar-rich blood goes through the placenta.
"The fetus is not just passively receiving nutrients from its mother," he said. "It's actually sending out control signals, and it got that ability from genes that it got from its father."
After the child is born, the father's presence — not only his genes — matters. Raeburn cites research from Nadya Panscofar of the the College of New Jersey and Lynne Vernon-Feagans of the University of North Carolina. They found that fathers have a greater impact than mothers in expanding their children's vocabulary.
"What they think is going on there is that families where mothers spend more time with their kids, they're much more attuned to the kids' language," he said. "So they don't use words that the kids don't know as often. Fathers, who might spend less time, are more likely to use many more words, and that stretches kids."
"I'm glad to know my involvement is a good thing. But that's not why I spend time with my kids. I do it because I like it."
And then comes adolescence. One of the more striking findings described in the book shows how good fathers help their daughters transition from childhood to adulthood. Girls whose fathers are absent or almost always absent go through puberty sooner than their peers whose fathers are present.
The book discusses research by University of Arizona's Bruce J. Ellis, who first established this connection, and has since attempted to find out why it happens. Is it genetic or environmental? Ellis answered this question by studying families with two daughters, some with divorced parents and some with parents who remained married. He found that younger sisters in divorced families with badly behaved fathers — in other words, girls who'd spent more time without their father present — got their first periods about a year earlier than their older sisters.
"The conclusion was that growing up with an emotionally or physically distant father in early to middle childhood could be a ‘key life transition' that alters sexual development," Raeburn wrote.
Raeburn also highlights the crucial role that involved fathers play throughout their kids' lives: financial support. For a long time, of course, this was considered the primary — if not the only — benefit that children got from their fathers. We now know that fathers help meet their children's emotional and social needs as well as their material needs. And mothers are increasingly likely to be partial or even primary breadwinners in their families. But Raeburn cautions against losing sight of the importance of a father's contribution to his children's financial well-being.
"Poverty is without question the worst thing that can happen to children," he said. "We shouldn't shortchange the father who works 50 hours a week to support his family and takes on extra shifts. That person may not be the wonderful father who makes every school field trip that we might think is an ideal. But he's doing something very important for his children."
Probably my favorite passage in Do Fathers Matter? comes when Raeburn steps back for a moment from his impressive research review to reflect on why he wants to be around his children. It's not because he wants to boost their IQs or keep their hormones in check. It's because he loves his children and enjoys being with them.
"I'm glad to know my involvement is a good thing," he wrote. "But that's not why I spend time with my kids. I do it because I like it."
Raeburn is not alone: fathers are spending more and more time with their children.
"In 1965, fathers spent on average two and a half hours a week with their children," Raeburn said. "In more recent polling and surveys, they report spending 7.3 hours with their children. Fathers spend a lot more time with their children than they once did."
But a large number of children do not experience these benefits
Even as some fathers are spending more time with their children than they did a half-century ago, other fathers becoming less involved. More than a quarter of children in America live apart from their fathers, up from 11 percent in 1960. And of those fathers who don't live with their children, between a third and a half never or almost never see their children. A Pew report from 2011 called these diverging patterns "a tale of two fathers."
"The extent of the problem is larger than I would have expected," Raeburn said.
And it's a problem that he, as a divorced father, can empathize with.
"Having been divorced myself, there were times when my relationships with my children were very tenuous," he said. "It's very sad that it happens so frequently."
A father's absence can have lasting negative repercussions. Do Fathers Matter? includes a list of the consequences of absent fathers, provided by Rutgers University's David Popenoe: juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, lower academic achievement, depression, substance abuse, and poverty.
So what do you do if your father's not around?
Nevertheless, Raeburn emphasizes that while fathers are important, they are not essential. He points to two of the most prominent Americans who grew up with absent fathers: President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Clearly, an involved father is not a prerequisite for a rich, successful life. And, of course, a father who is present but abusive can have a disastrous effect on his children. Children and the parents who raise them are individuals, not statistics, and what is true in the aggregate is not necessarily true of a specific family under a specific set of circumstances.
Over the past few years many single mothers have written passionately about the ways their children thrive in their nontraditional — though no longer unusual — family structure. In the New York Times, Katie Roiphe celebrated her household for being "messy, bohemian, warm." Last year in Slate, single mother Pamela Gwyn Kripke argued that her children are tougher and more resilient as a result of being raised in a one-parent family. Stacia L. Brown, who founded an online community for single mothers of color called Beyond Baby Mamas, has written about the many reasons different women raise children on their own — and all these reasons focus on what's best for their kids.
Raeburn describes a conversation he had with a friend who is a single mom. Upon hearing that he was writing a book about fathers, she asked him, "What do I need to know?"
"We can talk about fathers and social policies and political issues, on a basis of what we really know, not on a basis of how we think fathers behave"
"That's the kind of reaction that I hope people will have," he said. "Some researchers have suggested for example that single mothers try to involve a male father figure with their children. It may be a brother or uncle or you know somebody in the family. It could be a male figure that spends a lot of time with the kids — it could be a close friend. That's not always possible. But it's one good piece of advice for single mothers."
He also points back to the language study that showed fathers help expand their children's vocabulary.
"That doesn't mean that in families where kids don't have a father that kids won't learn to talk," he said. "But it does suggest to single mothers that they might want to be a little more conscious of that and push their children a little more to encourage that kind of language development."
Are there policies that could help encourage dads to be more involved in their kids' lives?
One of Raeburn's goals in writing Do Fathers Matter? was to inspire a more informed policy conversation about fatherhood.
"What I've tried to do here is collect a lot of the new and recent research that says, ‘Here's what fathers really do for their children,'" he said. "And once we know that, then we can talk about all the things we want to say about fathers and social policies and political issues and everything, on a basis of what we really know, not on a basis of how we think fathers behave."
The book doesn't include many policy recommendations, but Raeburn can think of one that he believes is vitally important: a strong family leave policy.
"There are four countries in the world that do not require parental leave, and the US is one of them," he said. "Parental leave starts things off on the right foot, and it's crazy that we don't do that."
But parental leave, as crucial as it is, would only help already-engaged dads become even more engaged. It wouldn't affect dads who have no interest in their kids, or dads who are in prison, or dads who have such a troubled relationship with their ex-wives or ex-girlfriends that they never see their children.
Reducing the number of children who grow up without their fathers would require a whole host of changes: a stronger jobs market for men with lower education levels; a rethinking of the child-support system, which in its current form often drives fathers away from their children; well-designed mentorship and apprenticeship programs; prison reform.
And all this addresses only the practical obstacles that prevent many men from being present fathers. There's also widespread emotional healing that needs to take place. Children of divorce are more likely to grow up to have relational challenges as adults. Many of today's absent fathers were themselves let down by their dads. For them, committing to fatherhood means committing to a job they've seen done really badly in the past. And that is deeply, deeply, challenging.
Perhaps Raeburn's book can have some part in this emotional work — in convincing men that they do have a role to play, even if their own fathers weren't perfect.
"There are differences in the way mothers and fathers parent, and that's a good thing," Raeburn said. "We can use that to raise happy and healthy children. It's actually a pretty good biological system."
Eleanor Barkhorn: Lots of people have written books about fathers: Michael Lewis, Bill Cosby, Barack Obama, to name just a few. What makes your book distinctive?
Paul Raeburn:There have been thousands of books written by fathers about how wonderful their children are. And there have been many books written by children about how wonderful their fathers are. And all those things are good. I think my kids are the greatest kids in the world, too, just like most parents do. But I didn't think we needed another book like that. I wanted to step around all those books and say, "yes we all think we know a lot about fathers and what they do for their kids, but what do we really know based on scientific research?" So what I've tried to do here is collect a lot of the new and recent research that says, "Here's what fathers really do for their children." And once we know that, then we can talk about all the things we want to say about fathers and social policies and political issues and everything, on a basis of what we really know, not on a basis of how we think fathers behave.
Eleanor Barkhorn: What's an example of something you learned about how fathers contribute to their children's lives?
Paul Raeburn In general fathers have much more effect on children than even I would have guessed — and I was biased in favor of fathers to start with. It turns out that fathers have all kinds of effects on their children, and children have all kinds of effects on their fathers. Some of what's interesting is what happens during pregnancy, for example.
Men's testosterone levels drop when their partners are pregnant. Our hormonal systems are fundamental parts of our biology. They're not easily tinkered with. So the fact that a man's testosterone drops during his partner's pregnancy is quite interesting. It's surprising. And it happens with no physical connection to the child. There's a physical connection to the partner, but not in a way that would obviously affect hormones. So not only does testosterone fall, but prolactin in men rises. And if you've heard of prolactin at all, it's because we associate prolactin with nursing. Why it would rise in fathers during pregnancy is a mystery. But the thinking is, these hormonal changes in fathers during pregnancy change men from competitors seeking mates into more nurturing individuals ready to raise a child. Now the science is, the hormones change. The speculation is, it happens because it's changing men into more nurturing figures for their children. The reason I'm making that point is, I'm trying to be very careful about what we know and what we don't know. There's interesting speculation associated with these things.
Another interesting example: we know a father's genes contribute to hair color and eye color and maybe how tall or short their children are, and all those obvious things. It also turns out that genes from fathers also give the developing fetus the ability to control the mother's blood pressure, control her blood sugar levels, and to control its own growth. And so the fetus is not just passively receiving nutrients from its mother. It's actually sending out control signals, and it got that ability from genes that it got from its father.
Eleanor Barkhorn: What about after the child is born? What sort of a role do fathers play?
Paul Raeburn: The amount that fathers spend with their children has tripled since the 1960s. In 1965, fathers spent on average two and a half hours a week with their children. In more recent polling and surveys, they report spending 7.3 hours with their children. So fathers spend a lot more time with their children than they did. It's also true that if you add up the total amount of paid and unpaid work that mothers and fathers do, fathers spend 54.2 hours per week working--paid and unpaid work--mothers spend 52.7. So they're both about the same. All mothers and fathers have had a tough time in the last decade or two because the economy has been changing, more women have been working, they've been working more hours, and those kinds of changes put stresses on everybody involved. But fathers are contributing more to their children than they often get credit for.
Eleanor Barkhorn: The book also describes what happens when a father isn't around.
Paul Raeburn: The extent of the problem is larger than I would have expected. It turns out that depending on what study you look at - these things are not terribly precise - something like a third to a half of divorced fathers never or almost never see their children. That's shocking to me. But I also have to say, having been divorced myself, there were times when my relationships with my children were very tenuous. Fortunately we didn't quite fall into that scenario, but I can sort of see how it happens. It's very sad that it happens so frequently.
There's a series of studies that show children are more likely to be involved in delinquency and criminal behavior and do more poorly in school if their fathers aren't present. There's a conversation that says it's because fathers aren't present, and others say that it's more related to the poverty that is often faced by families when fathers aren't present.
But here's a newer piece of research I found that's quite interesting but again shows how intense the bonds can be between fathers and children. And it turns out that when the father is absent, or almost always absent, daughters go into puberty about a year earlier on average than they would have otherwise. The question is, what's going on here? And the thinking is that when daughters grow up in a secure family, they're protected, their basic needs are supplied, and everything is fine. Then there's no great rush for them to mature and go out and think about forming their own families. When the father is absent -- the daughter is not aware of this of course -- something is triggering their hormonal systems to begin puberty early because their hormonal systems are getting a signal from their environment that their family situation is not secure, and that they might do better to seek out their own families where they might have a more secure situation. So not only do they go into puberty sooner -- they're more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, more likely to get pregnant, more likely to get sexually transmitted diseases. So again it's a profound connection between fathers and daughters in this case that until recently nobody knew existed.
Eleanor Barkhorn: It's hard to read these studies without getting really upset, considering how many children grow up without their fathers actively involved in their lives. Can single mothers, or children who are growing up with absent fathers, read this book and not feel despair?
Paul Raeburn: The point here is that fathers are important for children but not essential.
One single-mother friend of mine, her question was, "What should I do?" In other words, "What do I need to know that might be missing here that I could compensate for?" And that's the kind of reaction that I hope people will have. Some researchers have suggested for example that single mothers try to involve a male father figure with their children. It may be a brother or uncle or you know somebody in the family. It could be a male figure that spends a lot of time with the kids - it could be a close friend. That's not always possible. But it's one good piece of advice for single mothers.
Another example relates to language development: some researchers at North Carolina looked at fathers and mothers and the language ability of three- and four-year-olds. And they discovered a strong correlation between fathers' involvement with children and the children's language abilities. Interestingly they found no correlation between mothers' involvement and children's language abilities. So what they think is going on there is that families where mothers spend more time with their kids, they're much more attuned to the kids' language, so they don't use words that the kids don't know, as often. Fathers, who might spend less time, are more likely to use many more words, and that stretches kids and puts them along. That doesn't mean that in families where kids don't have a father that kids won't learn to talk. But it does suggest to single mothers that they might want to be a little more conscious of that and push their children a little more to encourage that kind of language development.
Eleanor Barkhorn: What do you want parents to take from this book?
Paul Raeburn: I hope the book will start a conversation, and that we'll recognize that there are differences in the way mothers and fathers parent, and that's a good thing. We can use that to raise happy and healthy children. We shouldn't try to fight it. The facts are what the facts are. It's actually a pretty good biological system.
Eleanor Barkhorn: And what are the broader policy implications of your book? What can we do as a society to encourage more fathers to be part of their kids' lives?
Paul Raeburn: I didn't do a lot of policy things. I tried to put the information about the importance of dads out there so that people could take that where they wanted to take it. But clearly there are three countries in the world that do not require parental leave, and the US is one of them. So parental leave and specifically paternal leave is something we need to make a policy priority here. This is the kind of thing that can not only help children with a lot of the psychological and social factors we talked about, but it has the potential to help reduce violence in urban communities, to improve behavior at school - a whole series of things that happen when fathers become engaged. The evidence shows that if fathers are engaged in the early years, they'll continue to be more involved later on. Parental leave starts things off on the right foot, and it's crazy that we don't do that.