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The Science Of Being A Dad

The science of fatherhood. How dads shape their children from the DNA up – how they speak, the way they move, more.

A father and his son. A new book suggests not enough research has been done to show the importance of fathers in childhood development. (Creative Commons / Lies Thru a Lens)

A father and his son. A new book suggests not enough research has been done to show the importance of fathers in childhood development. (Creative Commons / Lies Thru a Lens)

Father’s Day, coming up.  Maybe it’s pancakes and a hug for Dad.  For a long time now, the issues around Mom have had more attention.  Dads were off working.  Moms juggled the universe.  Including work.  But a raft of scientific studies have been steadily boring into the question of exactly how and where dads – fathers – have their impact in child-rearing and the home.  In genetic legacies.  In dad-style play and speech.  In the onset of puberty, the family frame of mind, the biological impact of simple presence.  This hour On Point:  The science of fatherhood.  How it works.  The imprint it leaves.

– Tom Ashbrook


Paul Raeburn, author of the new book “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked.” Author of the “About Fathers” blog at Psychology Today magazine. Chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT. (@praeburn)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: Roughhousing Lessons From Dad – “There is no question among researchers that fathers who spend time with their children instill self-control and social skills in their offspring. Exactly how dads do that, however, is largely a mystery. Thousands of studies have sliced and diced the benefits for children of a close, nurturing bond with Mom. Researchers have a harder time analyzing the ways fathers interact with children, such as rough-and-tumble play.”

Scientific American: How Dads Influence Teens’ Happiness — “In 2011 administrators at Frayser High School in Memphis, Tenn., came to a disturbing realization. About one in five of its female students was either pregnant or had recently given birth. City officials disputed the exact figures, but they admitted that Frayser had a problem. The president of a local nonprofit aimed at helping girls blamed the disturbing rate of teen pregnancy on television.”

New York Times: Relevant? Nurturing? Well, So’s Your Old Man — “When our young daughters first decided to play on top of our Honda minivan, parked in our driveway, my wife was worried. But to me, it seemed no less safe than chasing a ball that frequently ended up in the street. And they loved the height, the novelty, the danger. So I let them stay. They never fell. And with the summer weather here, playing on the car is once again keeping them occupied for hours.”

Read An Excerpt Of “Do Fathers Matter?” By Paul Raeburn

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  • John Cedar

    Blasphemy and homophobia.
    A father is a vestigial parent rendered obsolete by liberalism.
    A steady check from the state serves the father’s function better, as do two mommies.

  • dt03044

    Really? Is that the way to begin a thoughtful dialogue?

  • Coastghost

    What exact claims to explanatory power does “a scientific account” of anthropology possess (or claim to possess)?
    (Id est: who says science is CAPABLE of telling us “what it means to be human”?)
    Any scientific account of anthropology suffers from some degree of reductionism: can any scientific account purely construed compensate for or overcome these intrinsic limitations?
    (Id est: who says we WANT science to tell us “what it means to be human”?)
    If our sciences and applied technologies have contributed so abundantly to our self-alienation already, why consult its “explanations” of humanity the livelong day?

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    The rise & widespread distribution of the beta male. This will turn out badly for western civilization.

  • Coastghost

    Chalk one for Raeburn: he confesses that science and the investigations it conducts are subject to the demands of politics and to the decrees of fashion.

  • AC

    <-guilty of misandry – i used to suspiciously double check when i saw a man alone with children….
    i've gotten much better since i've noticed tho…..

    • Bill98

      It’s so sad that you ever felt that way, and that you are far from alone in that thinking. Most guys are just decent, loving people. They shouldn’t be under a cloud of suspicion, simply due to their gender.

      • AC

        you’re absolutely right, but it makes me think of the whole ’1 bad apple’ thing…usually, when you hear about abuse, it’s from a man, so i’ll forgive myself a little and i’m not so quick to judgement anymore. i have to say, a lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of my male friends are starting to have kids and i see them posting pics and updates on FB proudly…..

    • hennorama

      AC — there’s nothing wrong with “suspiciously double check[ing].” Concern for children is a positive adult attribute.

      • AC

        thanks, but it was unfairly intense when it came to males, so i realized i was being a hypocrite to some extent…

        • hennorama

          AC — TYFYR.

          Self-awareness is also a positive adult attribute.

  • hellokitty0580

    My mom was the primary caretaker when I was a young child and my dad was the more aloof parent. Regardless, my dad has always made me feel safe and secure, even when I am with him today as an adult. My dad is the figure that makes me feel I have a foundation and a safety net. It may just be that is more to do with his character and our personal relationship, but that is how I think of my father- strength and protection. I have always been daddy’s little girl and that makes me feel safe in the world. I wonder if that is typical of the father-daughter relationship generally.

  • Coastghost

    Chalk another one for Raeburn (this guy’s on a roll): even with the extensive and elaborate accounts of biological science under our noses every day, we’ve permitted feminists to persuade us for decades that women are capable of generating their own pregnancies.

    • Bill O’Brien

      they persuaded us of … what?

      • Coastghost

        The entire premise and tacit rationale of abortion policy and practice in the US is the assertion that women generate their own pregnancies. (If women were in fact capable of generating their own pregnancies unassisted, I would gladly support abortion practice. I simply don’t defer to preferred feminist mythmaking.)

        • Bill O’Brien

          parthenogenesis is the implicit rationale for legalized abortion?

          • Coastghost

            I agree: feminist accounts of biological science merit close examination. But as Raeburn confesses, science is subject to being held captive to intellectual fashion.
            (Now we’re being asked to believe that homosexuals can reproduce sexually by strictly practicing homosexual sexuality.)

          • Bill O’Brien

            ok, i give up. i have no idea what you are talking about.

          • Coastghost

            I’m only citing the advent of utopian sexual politics, which bear only the most remote connections to reality when they’re not completely untethered, as they commonly are.

  • Yar

    Isn’t it funny how we try to separate our biology from our thinking. What we think changes our chemistry as our chemistry changes what we think. Think about it and it will change you. You can change.

  • jbraetzke

    It would be nice to hear a discussion regarding single father households.

  • Jon

    wonder why the author doesn’t sell this research to the conservatives? sounds like science is on their side

  • Jim

    The supposed fact that babies go to the dads first is not true. My first does not do that. Only my second son does do that. Strangely, i have a better relationship with my second son than my first. But I will say it might be my mother in law who might make the difference since she stayed with him most of the time.

  • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

    When a man enters a playground where there are small children around, it’s good advice to bring a woman with him for ‘protection,’ these days.
    (my thoughts after hearing that a man entering a playground with his own child was held by police for 20 minutes after someone called them!).
    The bad press that men get is just terrible. A few guys with creepy problems get all the press. The rest of us who would never harm anyone seem to have faded into the background in the public consciousness. It’s really sad. This is how sexism cuts both ways. This is how feminism is truly about respect for all.

    • hellokitty0580

      I totally agree. I think often men in Westernized culture are guilty until proven innocent. I think it goes back to a recent show about misogyny and the antidote to that being the good men standing up and taking center stage.

      • warryer


        Innocent until proven guilty is one of the foundations of this country.

        • hellokitty0580

          I intentionally said “guilty until proven innocent” because it is SUPPOSED to be “innocent until proven guilty”. I was making a point. I don’t see what was so “foolish” about that.

    • Bill98

      I agree with you, right up until your last point. I don’t see feminism working, in any way, to address this issue. In fact, by their subtle vilification of males, such as telling us that men must be “taught not to rape” (as if they don’t innately understand that this is wrong), they encourage the sort of sexism that you describe.

      • creaker

        Actually the problem there is generalizations – when one paints groups like “men” or “feminists” with a single broad brush instead of recognizing every individual is unique, stuff like this is going to happen.

      • http://alchemicalreaction.blogspot.com/ Alchemical Reaction

        Rape is much more complicated. Many young women go into “freeze” mode where they just “obey” what is being told to them because they irrationally think that is how to make it through the situation unharmed.

        Meanwhile, the guy is not necessarily thinking about rape. In some cases, he may be thinking, “She is not saying much. She must be shy. But she seems to be enjoying this.” Thus, totally unaware that the woman is terrified.

        Is this rape? Many say yes. Many say no.

        Communication, compassion, understanding are key.

        Men need to learn compassion for the woman’s situation. Women need to learn to be very blunt, but kind, with men.

    • http://alchemicalreaction.blogspot.com/ Alchemical Reaction


      So sick of men-hating BS.

  • Christopher Ives

    Let’s talk about ‘Fatherhood’ as a gender role and not an inherent trait of being sexually male.

    • Christopher Ives

      Why is this “for another show?” — We’re talking about being a FATHER. Not about being a male human who is also a father.

      EVERYTHING you’ve mentioned is related to gender and thus can be utilized by a mother or a father. This should-have-been the main focus.

      • http://alchemicalreaction.blogspot.com/ Alchemical Reaction

        As soon as the “powers that be” start talking about “motherhood” as a gender role not solely connected to being biologically female, then cool. Otherwise, give me a break.

        • Christopher Ives

          Who are the ‘powers that be”?
          I’m saying that a man can be motherly and a woman can be fatherly. The things the presenter noted as important for development were ways of acting, and not tied to being male of female, yet there was a constant connection with being a ‘man’.

          It was supposed to be the science behind fatherhood, but all they spoke of was the scientific effects of having someone act ‘fatherly’ – which could be from a man or a woman.

          This is consistently an issue in our society, where ‘boys should be boys’ and as the presenter noted – a Dad will rough-house-play with their son.

          To me this just reinforces the archaic notion that a man should be dominant and brutish and more importantly that this ‘rough-housing’ is a strictly man-centric thing. (Why can’t the Mother rough-house?- If there is a difference, lets talk about THAT science, which I assume does not exist).

          • http://alchemicalreaction.blogspot.com/ Alchemical Reaction

            The difference that DOES exist is one of hormones. It’s common knowledge and has been studied extensively.

            I agree that fluidity in gender roles is a strength not a weakness.

            but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

            I DO believe the erosion of the family unit is one of the biggest problems in our society, and can be seen in school outcomes.

            Not saying it has to be a traditional family. But a family of some kind, beyond a single parent.

          • Christopher Ives

            Right, so talking about what a ‘male father’ is seems like a moot point. If a ‘nontraditional’ family is just as good.

            And so I think it would have been more interesting to talk about the sociology of ‘father figures’ or the importance of a deliberate family and maybe the history of the evolution of fatherhood.

            Instead this story was about the average ‘Dad’ and how we need more ‘man’ and to appreciate the man-dad and the role HE plays, as if it’s a scientific fact that Dad’s are needed to provide senses of ‘security’ and ‘rough-house-play’…. these are their topics they spoke of.

            I’m fine with the hormone stuff, I think that would have been an interesting piece of the story, but if they mentioned that it must have been in that moment I lost service for a few seconds, because I didn’t hear it.

            The erosion of the family you talk about is likely due to our (society’s) mistake in thinking that the ‘Father’ is such an objective thing and not a fluid, societal construction more than most anything else.

    • PaulD

      Did you actually listen to the show? I’m not sure how you extricate the ‘gender role’ from the actual biology based on what was said in the show.

      • Christopher Ives

        I did, yes.
        Gender roles and biology are loosely related at best. Anyone familiar with gender studies / sociology can expound about this in greater detail, but essentially, gender is a societal construction, like race.

        It only exists in the individual + collective mind of the society.

        And so, I was struck many times by the fact that the things the presenter noted as being ‘father-centric’ were simply classic male gender roles. Such as being the provider, rough-housing, and teaching the child masculinity, etc. All these things could be taught by a Female… by a mother…. there was nothing inherently male or Fatherly there.

        This discussion was more about the importance of a balanced family life – not over-nurtured, not overly strict – and that two parents have an advantage over one. That’s it.

        • PaulD

          As one example, did you hear the parts about how a baby is more likely to be born prematurely if the father isn’t around? How about the part saying girls enter into puberty earlier if the father isn’t around? In other words, there is scientific basis for the best situation being that the two biological parents are around to raise the child.

          Yes, sometimes that’s not possible and in lieu of that, other situations can work well, but that doesn’t mean those other situations are ideal.

          • Christopher Ives

            Feels like correlation and not causation. You can imagine a slew of reasons that often go along with single-mother households on average in the US that might also push back puberty….

  • Anne Bouwer

    I was a divorced mother of two daughters at the age of 27, and never wanted to marry again, but the following year I met the nicest man that I have ever known and I am still with him 30 years later. My daughters, who are 35 and 32, consider him their “real” father, and their biological father like some distant uncle. He saved us all, with his gentle feminism, his supportive patient presence, always dependable, and has been the best father to all four children and an example of a good man to our wonderful twin boys, his biological children.

  • madeda1

    I must ask this; did the policy enacted by the federal government towards the poor where the men were not able to be in the home with the kids and the mom cause the damage that is seen in the black community today and can it change policy or at least cause some different thinking on some things?

    • hellokitty0580

      I’m not sure what you mean by a federal policy enacted by the government, but I think you raise a good point about African American men and fatherhood. I’m sure On Point could do a whole different show on that. It’s a very interesting subject. It’s very clear, not only here in the United States but even in Africa, that the mother is often the head of the household due to historical government policy, etc. My black grandmother raised 6 children, 5 boys and 1 girl, during the Civil Rights era because my grandpa was on leave in the navy. She had to be the head of the household- the comforter, the security, the disciplinarian, etc.

      • madeda1

        The Government use to allow a married family to receive assistance together. The father was allowed to be in the home with his family and the family could still receive food stamps and federal subsidy. The husband could still hold a job and the help was seen as a bridge or a buttress to keep total poverty at bay. The government changed their policy and forbid the husbands from being in the households as a rule for receiving assistance. I do not remember exactly but I think it was in the 60″s.

  • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

    I know there are only a few minutes left, but it seems that the point is, still, that it takes a village to raise a child! Isolation is the problem overall. If you’re a single mom, or a single dad, or a two mom or two dad family, the point is to connect as closely as possible with other adults that the children can trust.

    • Emily4HL

      One of my goals in life is to be that trustworthy adult, hopefully for my own children one day and for others. I know that I would not have survived without my village.

  • hennorama

    Are the added risks of “older fathers” that Mr. Raeburn has detailed listed as risk factors for the various Erectile Dysfunction drugs?

  • DrTing

    My silent father – not my biological- has given me more support, brain power & guidance than my biological father.
    I believe fathers, in return, receive joy from having opportunity for playing & nurturing the kids, watching them to grow and to become useful citizens to benefit & enrich the world.
    Fathers can create precious memories through
    nurturing the kids & these memories are the treasury of all things.

  • Emily4HL

    And then there are those of us who heartily wish that our “fathers” had gotten out of the picture much sooner. In my case, I stopped feeling that I had a “father” or a “dad” very young and realized I had a man who contributed to my creation who lived with us. He was negligent at best and emotionally abusive at worst. I turned out pretty well, but I’ve never felt completely secure or that I had a safety net.

    As such, there’s nothing that makes me happier than watching fathers patiently play with and nurture their children.

    • MedfordMan

      My heart goes out to you. Our own circumstances were far from the best, but I resolved then that I would try to be the best Dad I could. I was fortunate to have two daughters who did well, won scholarships & graduated from top schools. I hope you find peace.

  • ChrisG

    You get way more studies searching under the terms maternal, mother, etc. because so many of them are about maternal health during or after pregnancy. After all, the father can die right after impregnating a woman, and his physical health is irrelevant to the development and health of the fetus. It is misleading to give the statistics about PubMed search results using such simplistic reasoning.

  • gala1

    As a single mother, with an absent “father” – I would love some pointers on finding strong positive male role models.

    This is what I have tried/trying:

    We already belong to a church – where a few RE teachers are male.
    Signed my son up for soccer – male coach.
    I am not dating – personal choice (at this time).
    No grandfathers – all dead
    No uncles – well one, but he don’t even spend time with his own children and lives far away.
    Male friends – they don’t have time or willingness to commit to such time and effort intensive task, they have lives of their own.

    So. My son is 4.
    As he gets older – I will investigate/involve him in a big brother/sister program and boy scouts programs.
    But … is that it? Not sure if this is enough.
    Do I take out a craigslist ad – looking for strong male role models?!
    And do a background check?

    • NonnerDoIt

      Your son is about the age when he’s forming pretty good friendships with kids his own age. He’s also young enough that outside school or daycare he probably needs you to get him to/from his friends. As his social circle expands keep an eye out for his friends that seem to have good, actively involved dads and facilitate your little guy hanging out with his friend and, hopefully, the other dad.

      You’ll have to be careful to let it happen as naturally as possible, but if you get along with the other kids’ parents you could after a little while mention something about being glad your boy is getting a good male role model.

      Just a thought. its not an easy problem. I have a 4 year old boy too, I love playing with him, and I would be happy to be in this sort of arrangement. 4 might be a little young yet, but 5 or 6 should be good. Good Luck!

  • http://alchemicalreaction.blogspot.com/ Alchemical Reaction

    All I have ever wanted my whole life is to be a Dad. But I don’t yet have a good job. And I won’t ask a woman to marry me until I can help out, support, provide. And I have a Bachelor’s degree. It breaks my heart to see so many single moms and kids in foster care.

    • Robert Skinner

      all good causes, but don’t get married, save your money and have children with a woman you love.

      • Godzilla the Intellectual

        Thank You for the kind words, Robert. Good advice.

  • http://alchemicalreaction.blogspot.com/ Alchemical Reaction

    Breaks my heart to hear that…

  • William Patrick Bower

    Maybe it was not a good idea to drive fathers out of families

  • Magaly Martinez

    Hi, I am a young mother(28) and my husband is 29. We have a 2 yr old daughter with down syndrome. when I heard about the father’s age related to risk of having a child with down syndrome, I didn’t agree. Most of the families that we have met are around our age. Age is not a determining factor, the number seems higher because less older people have kids. I wish society knew more about the random occurrence of chromosomal abnormalities.

  • LucySinclairsyk

    as Thelma
    explained I cannot believe that a stay at home mom can make $7420 in four weeks
    on the internet . more info here R­e­x­1­0­.­C­O­M­

  • TJPhoto40

    Interesting program with a few valuable insights or research discoveries. But I would have enjoyed hearing more about gender roles in other cultures including tribal ones where the roles can be quite different in some cases. In addition, it seems like the show focused mostly on fathers and sons, leaving out the relationship of fathers with daughters, if there are any major differences in that relationship, etc.

  • http://tomdog.com/ tomdog

    The comments here are so much more positive than what is on Facebook which immediately devolved into how tough mothers have it, and that fathers are generally irresponsible and not involved in raising their children. Thank you, commenters, for having much more interesting and valuable perspectives here.

  • Robert Skinner

    well said

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President Barack Obama meets with Congressional leaders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, to discuss options for combating the Islamic State. (AP/Evan Vucci)

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