June 18, 2001

Why Dads Matter

New studies show fathers' impact on child development


The day care of the west-end Toronto church is a fitting setting for the weekly meetings of one of the city's only dads' support groups, Fathers Are Capable Too. Cribs, stuffed animals and building blocks piled neatly against the walls are a pleasant reminder of the children these fathers have come to talk about. But the tone of the session is anything but innocent. For 2 1/2 hours, the standing-room only crowd of men and women recount horror stories of divorce, separation and kids being raised without fathers. While all the tales are different, they have an eerily common theme: these dads feel forgotten. "There is this wide perception that we aren't important, that we have a small role to play in our children's lives," one father told Maclean's. "In the legal system, we're treated like enemies. On TV, we're bumbling fools like Homer Simpson. Few people take us seriously."

How things have changed since the '50s, when shows like Father Knows Best trumpeted the virtues of fatherhood and the two-parent family. The subsequent upheavals on the home front culminated legally in the Divorce Act of 1968, which liberalized divorce and favoured the mother in custody disputes, leaving many fathers playing relatively minor roles in their kids' lives. (As of last year, more than one million Canadian families were headed by women, up from 370,000 in 1971.) Yet at the same time, as we approach Father's Day, 2001, a growing body of research is highlighting just how crucial a dad can be in his child's development. "There is no doubt that kids raised by a single mom or dad can turn out great," says David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a leading researcher on the family. "But there are some areas where kids raised without a certain parent do appear to be more at risk."

Some of the most compelling findings come from Judith Wallerstein, a retired University of California professor. In her 2000 book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Wallerstein presents her nearly 30-year study of 131 children, and argues that the effects of divorce on kids are more serious and long-lasting than initially believed. The harm, she contends, becomes particularly apparent when kids attempt to form intimate relationships as adults. Wallerstein's work has proved controversial: some researchers criticize her for not using a control group, and worry that she might scare ill-suited couples into sticking it out for the sake of the kids. Still, Wallerstein has her supporters. "There were a lot of studies done in the 1970s that showed divorce had no effect on children," explains Popenoe. "But the long-term studies that were started then are coming out now, and they do show that the effects of divorce can worsen as the child gets older."

Popenoe explains that boys raised by mothers alone have a more difficult time shifting away from the maternal orbit. And girls lacking a father have a greater chance of becoming sexually active at young ages. "Perhaps these girls are looking for male affection and to be valued," explains Ted McNeill, director of social work for Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. "We don't necessarily know yet why all this happens, but we do know that girls who have fathers who are warmly and positively engaged tend to have healthier relations with the opposite sex."

While gender rules are made to be broken, there is no doubting male-female differences in child-rearing. Studies show that fathers often are more physically engaged and less emotional with their kids than mothers. Take the simple example of pushing a child in a playground swing. Moms tend to push cautiously, not wanting the child to fall, while dads shove harder and higher, getting the child worked up with both fear and delight. This type of play, studies show, can help teach kids emotional self-control. Dad's pushing forces children to learn to express their own feelings, as when they feel danger or pain. They also learn to read their father's facial and body cues, such as when they really have gone too high, or when dad thinks they can do more.

Other research shows that as children age, play with dad begins to involve more games and teamwork. Fathers often stress healthy competition, risk-taking and independence. The way fathers play, Popenoe writes, "affects everything from the management of emotions to intelligence and academic achievement." And studies conclude that boys and girls who have healthy relationships with their fathers often do better academically and, later on, in their careers.

These findings don't surprise Canadian psychologist Ross Parke. What surprises Parke is how few people recognize them. "Many people thought there would be a revolution in the 1960s and fathers and mothers would be equal," says the University of California professor and author of books on fatherhood. "There still are a lot of barriers preventing fathers from participating fully in their children's lives."

Employers, Parke notes, are often more understanding of a mother needing time off to look after a child than a father. Even the health professions can be mother-oriented. In 1993, when Michel Choquette and his then-spouse lost a child prematurely and their marriage began to fall apart, they reached out to a social worker for help. "We found a program for my wife," says Choquette, a 42-year-old software developer from Gatineau, Que. "But there was nothing for me. It was just assumed that men are strong and can deal with things. I couldn't and I fell apart."

Robert Glossop, executive director of programs at the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, says much of the confusion over fatherhood is because dad's role has changed significantly over the past four decades. "Fathers no longer think of themselves as just the breadwinner," he says. "They want to be involved in raising their kids." That attitude shift comes partly out of necessity. In today's economic climate, both parents usually work and fathers have to do more child-rearing and household chores. Yet time-use studies indicate that dads' intentions often don't match their actions: moms still do most of the non-employment work. "Today's dad likely had a father who grew up in the 1950s, when there was a clear division of labour," says Glossop. "We have a completely different economic system now, but our expectations of men and women are still much the same. Simply, today's dads have few role models."

Glenn Cheriton of Ottawa ran smack into the lingering 1950s gender stereotypes when he opted to stay home in 1994. "I still get these flippant comments from teachers and mothers about what I'm doing," says Cheriton, 51, who works part time from the house as a desktop publisher. "They consider a dad who stays at home to be a nuisance." That description hardly fits Cheriton. While his wife, Huda, works during the day in a clothing store, Cheriton does housework, food shopping and cooking. He's also active in local political issues and in his three children's school life and extracurricular activities. "Our society's idea of parenting has become profoundly feminized," he says. "Nurturing is important, but kids also need mentors to help them enter the social realm of adulthood." Sometimes, maybe father really does know best.