Dear Mr. Dad: My best friend really wants to be a mother, but has given up on finding “Mr. Right,” and has decided to have and raise a baby on her own. I’ve been following your work for a long time and have been telling her how important it is for babies to have male influences in their life. She says that dads don’t contribute anything to kids’ development and that her baby will be fine without one. I know I’m right, but what can I do to convince her?
A: You are, indeed, absolutely right. But I’m continually amazed at how many people share your friend’s absurd belief that dads aren’t important. As we’ve talked about a lot in these columns, fathers influence their children’s life as early as pregnancy, if not before. In other words, a man’s behavior and choices affect the quality of his sperm, which, in turn, can influence his future child’s physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, the majority of research on attachment, bonding, and child development still focuses exclusively on mothers. But the slowly growing number of studies that include men have confirmed what I’ve been saying for two decades — and what most observant parents already know: Fathers influence their children just as much as mothers do — and in many cases, even more.
Let me give you just a few examples. The more actively involved dads are with their infants — doing basic baby care, feeding, changing diapers, bathing, dressing, and so on — the better they handle stressful situations, such as being left with a stranger. Babies with involved dads tend to be more independent, more persistent, and handle frustration better than kids with a less-involved dad. Kids with involved dads get better grades — especially on math, vocabulary, and overall intelligence tests — they’re less likely to be expelled from school, and they’re more likely to graduate high school and go on to college. Those kids also have fewer psychological problems, are socially better adjusted, are more empathetic, have more friends, and higher levels of self-esteem than kids with less-involved or absent dads. As these kids hit their teen years, they’re less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or to get pregnant (or get someone else pregnant), grow up to be more caring and sensitive adults.
To sum it up, children who have the influence of sensitive, responsible men in their life are better off than kids who don’t. Notice that I said “sensitive, responsible men.” Ideally, of course, that man would be the child’s father. But an uncle, grandfather, or friend can be a workable substitute. The important thing is that the man (or men) be a strong and consistent presence in the child’s life.
Your friend should know that women benefit from the father’s involvement, too. When the baby’s father is around during the pregnancy, the mom will be less stressed and she’ll be more likely to get prenatal care, which reduces the risk that her baby will be born prematurely or be very small at birth — both of which are associated with a number of negative health problems that can last a lifetime. When mom and dad raise a child together, there are fewer division-of-labor issues to fight about, mom is less depressed and more satisfied with her relationships, and the better she’ll perform her parenting duties.
Not surprisingly, men also benefit from being involved with their (or someone else’s) children. These men tend to take fewer risks (particularly the kind that could land them in the hospital or jail), and they’re more giving, nurturing and helpful. They also have more successful careers and are less likely to get divorced from their child’s mother.
This isn’t to say that single mothers can’t be good parents. Of course they can. But the best thing she can do for her baby is to make sure that there’s an involved, caring man in that baby’s life, right from day one.