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Why Dads Matter, According To Science

Celebrate the dads in your life by truly appreciating their worth.

To mark Father’s Day this year, you can plan a celebratory meal, treat Dad to delectable desserts, or scour the Internet for the perfect gift. 

But first, take the time to understand the precious role that fathers play in nurturing their children, so you can give them the credit they deserve. 

In Singapore, the dual-career family structure is probably the most prevalent, with about 60 percent of working-age women either employed or seeking employment. However, studies conducted in the early 2000s suggested that local dads lagged behind mothers when it came to family involvement — they spent less time with their children, and their children perceived them as being less affectionate and providing less support, as compared to mothers. Local mothers also tended to take charge of everyday caregiving responsibilities, and activities related to literacy and learning.

Have things changed in 2020? As a society, we may be moving towards more flexibility in gender roles, including parenting. In 2014, 10,200 male Singaporeans and permanent residents cited “family responsibilities” as their main reason for not pursuing employment. This was more than triple the number of stay-home men in 2006. (About 16% of these men were home to provide childcare, and this was double the number of stay-home dads in 2006.)

Admittedly, stay-home fathers face challenges because of perceived expectations about fatherhood. As one father told the Straits Times: “When people ask me what I do, I’m still hesitant to tell them I’m a stay-at-home dad. I think people find it hard to comprehend and do not really accept this.”

Another sign that entrenched attitudes need to change: it was reported last year that two-thirds of eligible dads did not take paternity leave, while 97% of eligible dads did not take shared parental leave. It’s anyone’s guess whether this is due to workplace constraints or personal beliefs about a father’s caregiving abilities — it has been suggested that men may not be aware of just how important their roles as fathers are.

For dads in our KSP community, we’d like to wish you a happy and healthy Father’s Day, as well as remind you that you matter!

Below, we look at the research uncovered by journalist and father of five Paul Raeburn, in his book Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About The Parent We’ve Overlooked (available on Libby and Overdrive). We hope these insights will encourage more local dads to play an active role in raising their children.

Fathers Have Been Present Since Prehistoric Times, And Their Work Begins In The Womb

Some evidence appears to show that male primates closely related to humans — from millions of years ago — already took on the role of gathering food for their female mates and offspring. According to Raeburn, the ancestors of modern humans also experienced family dynamics that involved fathers protecting and serving as role models for their children. 

Interestingly, recent research has even suggested that a father’s genes could have an influence on motherhood; a foetus in the womb carries paternal genes that can impact the maternal brain, and help regulate a mother’s allocation of resources to her unborn child. 

Although mothers do the heavy lifting during pregnancies, studies have indicated that some fathers-to-be and new fathers undergo hormonal changes too, which includes a decline in their testosterone (male sex hormone) levels. In fact, men who have had larger dips in their testosterone levels have reported higher levels of engagement with their infants. 

Happy Father, Happy Kids

Much has been made of maternal depression, which has been linked to excessive crying in infants, and negative behaviours and poorer emotional health in children. Less research has been done on fathers, but at least one study has shown that fathers who are depressed are more likely to have children who manifest signs of depression, especially in their teenage years. 

Conversely, an emotionally healthy father can “ease the impact of a mother’s depression on their children” says Raeburn. “He can serve as a buffer, engaging the children when mother isn’t available because of her illness.”

Fathers Make A Difference When They Spend Time With Their Babies

Fathers may find it easier to sleep through a baby’s cries at night, but it doesn’t mean they’re not wired to respond to their babies — they’re just wired differently from mothers. When they play with their babies, fathers are able to encourage a mirroring of emotions (just as mothers do), and this is known as “synchrony.” In particular, father-son pairs, when positively engaged, show high levels of this emotional connection.

But here’s why it’s important to encourage new fathers to bond with their babies, even during the pregnancy stage: research has shown that fathers who were emotionally engaged at this phase are more likely to be involved with the children a year later, and three years later. As for the benefits of increased father involvement? In the early years, your baby may sleep better through the night, and have fewer tantrums as a toddler. If you have a boy, your son might be less likely to display aggressive behaviour.

Fathers Foster Childhood Language & Learning Skills

It’s certainly more common to find mothers buying reading materials for children or seeking book recommendations from fellow parents. But according to a study involving over 1,000 children, a father’s education and his use of vocabulary when reading picture books to his children at six months was found to be positively related to his children’s expressiveness at 15 months, and their use of advanced language at age three. This was said to hold true even with variations in the mother’s educational level and her manner of speaking to the children.

Why might this happen? According to one of the researchers, mothers typically spend more time around their children, and they might have a tendency to use words that their children are familiar with. Fathers on the other hand could be inclined to use a broader (or different) vocabulary around their children, and children who view time with their dads as playtime may pay special attention, which helps them in language acquisition. 

In terms of learning, fathers are thought to encourage risk-taking and exploration, more so than mothers. For instance, fathers teaching their children to swim are more likely to stand behind them, so that the children face the water, while mothers are more inclined to face their children to maintain eye contact. This encouragement from fathers to wade into unfamiliar territory can bode well for children as they make the transition to school and beyond. Best of all, fathers can help develop their children’s cognitive and social skills, simply by spending time with their children doing what they do best — play.

Fathers Provide Stability During Teenhood

For girls, there is some evidence that growing up without a father may accelerate puberty, or lead to early or risky sexual behaviour. The same holds true in some animal research, which has shown that exposure to the pheromones (secreted chemicals) of unrelated males can speed up puberty, while exposure to a father’s pheromones can slow it down. For adolescent boys, they have been found to engage in more delinquent behaviour if there is no father figure in their lives. 

It’s also thought that girls benefit most from quality interactions with their father, while boys experience benefits simply by having a father around the home. 

This is not to say that children in single-mother homes are unable to thrive — each family is unique and can play to its strengths. However, in homes where a father is present, his significance is often downplayed. If this is true of your family, you may want to look at how you can change this. 

“Fatherhood is about helping children become happy and healthy adults who are at ease in the world and prepared to become fathers or mothers themselves,” says Raeburn. “What’s best for our kids should always include a role for fathers.”

 

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