'Do fathers matter?' How dads affect their kids' lives

Researcher details a father's importance

Editor's note: This story was updated on June 19, 2017.

In his new book, Do Fathers Matter?, researcher Paul Raeburn set out to scientifically determine the importance of a father's role in children's development. He sat down with Vox's Eleanor Barkhorn to discuss his findings.

Learn the breakdown of Medicaid funding in the pediatrics market

More than 25% of U.S. children today do not live with their fathers, up from 11% in 1960. And many of those children never or almost never see their dads, according to a 2011 report. At the same time, fathers who do live with their children are spending more time with them: About seven hours a week, compared to two and half hours in 1965.

But even fathers who never see their children play a large role in their child's development from conception, according to Raeburn. For example, some of the genes that a father passes to a fetus increase the amount of blood that the mother sends to the fetus and increases the sugar content in the blood.

From birth to adulthood, fathers matter

After birth, the father's presence has a greater effect on the baby's vocabulary than the mother's presence, according to a 2010 study. "What [the researchers] 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," Raeburn explains, adding, "Fathers, who might spend less time, are more likely to use many more words, and that stretches kids."

Raeburn notes that the greatest influence fathers have on daughters may be in helping them transition to adulthood.

Girls with absent or mostly absent fathers tend to enter puberty sooner than girls with present fathers, according to a study from the University of Arizona. Researchers studied sets of sisters in families with married parents and divorced parents. They found that younger sisters who spent the least amount of time with their fathers started their periods about a year before their older sisters did.

"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 says.

Even absent fathers who are financially present can improve their children's lives, Raeburn notes.

"We shouldn't shortchange the father who works 50 hours a week to support his family and takes on extra shifts," Raeburn says, adding, "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."

Working fathers want to 'have it all,' too

But children with absentee fathers are not 'doomed'

While Raeburn's research linked having an absent father to an increased risk of juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, depression, substance abuse, and poverty, a few examples—like President Obama and former President Bill Clinton—challenge the stereotype.

"Some researchers have suggested for example that single mothers try to involve a male father figure with their children," Raeburn says, adding, "It may be a brother or uncle or you know somebody in the family…it's one good piece of advice for single mothers."

One of the goals of Raeburn's research is to inspire more informed policy surrounding fatherhood for those who choose it. "There are four countries in the world that do not require parental leave, and the [United States] is one of them. Parental leave starts things off on the right foot, and it's crazy that we don't do that," Raeburn says.

But such a policy would not affect the children of fathers who are absent, Raeburn admits. Reducing those numbers would take a host of changes, such as creating a better job market for less-educated men, an enlightened child-support system, and prison reform.

"Fathers have much more effect on children than even I would have guessed…There are differences in the way mothers and fathers parent, and that's a good thing," says Raeburn, adding, "We can use that to raise happy and healthy children" (Barkhorn, Vox, 6/14).

The case for improving coordination between behavioral health and pediatrics

The CDC estimates that nearly $247 billion is spent annually on the treatment and management of childhood mental disorders. Further, pediatric patients and caregivers often struggle to access high-quality behavioral health expertise due to a limited number of specialists and fragmented approaches to behavioral health services.

Given the growing costs and increasing difficulty in obtaining care, coordinated models of behavioral health can address the dire need for distributed pediatric behavioral health expertise.

In this webconference, we review the case for improving coordination between behavioral health and pediatrics, and describe four successful models that increase access to behavioral health care.

Access the Presentation

Next in the Daily Briefing

Cleveland Clinic announces exclusive cardiac partnership with NY hospital

Read now