Fathers: The Need for Fathers to be Involved in the Lives of Their Children

Here is the paper I wrote last year on the influence of fathers.

Although a mother has an important role in a child’s life, a father also has a significant impact, especially with his son’s response to daily stressors and peer relations, and his daughter’s sexual assertiveness and anorexia nervosa. Involved and emotionally responsive fathers help protect children just by being involved and responsive. When a father is involved and emotionally responsive to his children, he satisfies a portion of the intimacy and love that people in our society crave. While a child’s hope comes more from the relationship with the mother, the internalizing of behaviors comes more from the relationship with the father (Day & Padilla-Walker, 2009, p. 903).

To father a child is to provide one’s sperm to create a child. Therefore, most males can father a child. However, to be a father is “…to give a child guidance, instruction, encouragement, care, and love” (Popenoe, 2009, p. 19). One of the duties of a father is to attract his child to the world of things and people (Fishel, 1985, p. 43). A father can only do these things if he is present and involved in his child’s life.

Between the ages of one and three, the mother and child are supposed to separate and become individuals (Fishel, 1985, pp. 43-44). A father facilitates this process and provides the child an alternative to the mother (Fishel, 1985, pp. 43-44). He acts as a shield for the child against the child’s own fears of abandonment and punishment from the mother (Fishel, 1985, pp. 43-44). Fishel quotes Philip Spielman as saying, “The previous attitude was that the father was an intruder into the relationship between mother and child, disturbing the intimacy between them. But more recently, the father is seen to provide an escape from that bond…” (The men in our lives, 1985, p. 43). Therefore, fathers provide some of the necessary support for the child to grow a healthy relationship with the mother.

All of this is important because of the large number of children growing up without their fathers. Almost 40% of children do not live with their biological fathers (Popenoe, 2009, p. 19). “Of children born in the past decade, the chances that by age seventeen they will not be living with both biological parents stands at over 5o percent” (Popenoe, 2009, p. 19). This large number of children without their fathers is both unexpected and ironic. In colonial Virginia, 31% (white) of children reached 18 with two living parents (Popenoe, 2009, p. 21). In 1940, it was approximately 88% (Popenoe, 2009, p. 21). Over 50% of first marriages are expected to end in divorce (Popenoe, 2009, p. 20), putting the children of these marriages at a greater disadvantage than those who have lost their father by death (Popenoe, 2009, p. 21). Children who lose their father by death can realize that the father did not make the choice to not be present. However, children who have lost their fathers in any other manner have a harder time understanding why their fathers are not present, leading to the increased feelings of abandonment.

In his book Families without fathers: fathers, marriage and children in American society, David Popenoe states that “…children of divorced and never-married mothers are less successful in life by almost every measure than the children of widowed mothers” (Popenoe, 2009, p. 21). He also points out that there is strong evidence that a loss of fathering is one of most prominent reasons for lower child well-being (2009, p. 53). With the almost 40% of children that live without their biological fathers, we begin to see why we need to encourage fathers to be more present in their children’s lives. Studies have shown that a father’s involvement is more “positively related to self-esteem in two-parent families but negatively related to self-esteem in post-divorce families” (Clark & Barber, 1994, p. 612). This appears to be related to the absence of the fathers in the post-divorce families. “Developmental studies have shown that when fathers were unavailable to their children, the children perceived the need to mature more rapidly than their chronological and developmental levels would indicate” (Elliot, 2010); this gives us too many kids that have to grow up too fast. On the other hand, “a father’s presence and interaction with his children promoted feelings of safety, security, and competency in his children” (Elliot, 2010). An adolescents’ problem behaviors are more consistently related to the father’s influence because fathers are more focused on norm compliance (Day & Padilla-Walker, 2009, p. 903) and this is shown in the various behaviors related to the involvement, or lack of involvement, of the father.

One study done on the relationship between how adults perceive their childhood relationships with their parents and how these adult children respond to daily stressors found that when a son reported a high quality relationship with his father during childhood, the son also reported lower psychological distress in adulthood (Mallers, Charles, Neupert, & Almeida, 2010, p. 6). The researchers measured the stress by the participants’ self-assessments of how many times the participants felt

depressed, restless or fidgety, so restless [the respondent] could not sit still, nervous, so nervous that nothing could calm [the respondent] down, worthless, so sad that nothing could cheer [the respondent]up, tired out, that everything was an effort, and hopeless… (Mallers, Charles, Neupert, & Almeida, 2010)

over the last 24 hours (Mallers, Charles, Neupert, & Almeida, 2010). When a son reported a low quality relationship with his father during childhood, the son also reported higher stressors (Mallers, Charles, Neupert, & Almeida, 2010, p. 6). Therefore, a higher quality father-son relationship is associated with lower emotional reactivity (Mallers, Charles, Neupert, & Almeida, 2010, p. 7). Another thing to note is that only the father-son relationship has a significant relationship to emotional reactivity to stressors and only among adult males (Mallers, Charles, Neupert, & Almeida, 2010, p. 7). Support from both parents is significant and lasting (Mallers, Charles, Neupert, & Almeida, 2010, p. 7), however in order to have emotionally healthy adult males, fathers need to have a higher quality relationship with their sons. We need emotionally healthy sons in order to have emotionally healthy fathers for future generations.

Another study focused on 40 boys aged 13- to 14-years old (Beaty, 1995). Half of these boys had a father present and the fathers of the other half were absent prior to the boys turning five (Beaty, 1995). The boys in each group were asked to rate the boys in the other group on “masculine self-image and peer adjustment” (Beaty, 1995). The study found that a father’s absence has a negative impact on his son’s “masculine self-concept and peer relationship adjustment” (Beaty, 1995). If the absence begins before the boy turns five, the effects will be more traumatic and long term (Beaty, 1995). These boy are more likely to be “…dependent on peers, to be more ambiguous about masculinity, to disfavor competitive games and sport, and to engage in female aggressive behavior” (Beaty, 1995). When a father is absent from his son’s life, the son’s male peers become his role models (Beaty, 1995). Many of these boys can end up in gangs because the gang gives them the male role models they desire.

Jennifer Katz and Erica van der Kloet studied whether or not a “greater perceived emotional responsiveness from fathers would promote daughters’ refusals of unwanted sexual activity” (The first man in her life: father emotional responsiveness during adolescence and college women’s sexual refusal behaviors, 2010, p. 348).They found that when daughters felt supported, understood, and valued by fathers they were more sexually assertive and less compliant with unwanted sex (Katz & van der Kloet, 2010, p. 352). It was how the daughter perceived how responsive her father was that promoted the daughter’s self-worth, and in turn, greater sexual refusal assertiveness (Katz & van der Kloet, 2010, p. 352). The higher responsiveness also led to lower acceptance by the daughter of dating scripts that prescribed male dominance (Katz & van der Kloet, 2010, p. 353). The daughter’s behavior is predicted better by how she perceived her father’s responsiveness, rather than how the father perceived his responsiveness (Katz & van der Kloet, 2010, p. 353). This is significant because men and women differ in many ways and fathers need to realize that how their daughters feel about the relationship is most important.

While trying to describe the “nature and meaning of the father-daughter relationship, from the perspective of the daughter who has been in recovery from [anorexia nervosa] for at least 2 years,” J. Carol Elliot found that many girls with anorexia nervosa felt their fathers were occasionally emotionally and physically inaccessible (Fathers, daughters, and anorexia nervosa, 2010). These girls were unsure if “their fathers loved them and sought proof of their fathers’ love” (Elliot, 2010). This inaccessibility came gradually during her adolescence (Elliot, 2010). If the father was gone or fighting with the mother, the girls had a higher fear of abandonment and a greater amount of anxiety (Elliot, 2010). These girls felt obligated to keep their parents together and their families intact to dispel the fear of abandonment (Elliot, 2010). In order to do this, the girls tried to keep their prepubescent looks (Elliot, 2010).

In these same interviews, the girls described a close relationship with their fathers in their younger years (Elliot, 2010). Girls with anorexia nervosa also described having a similar temperament to their father (Elliot, 2010). Not surprisingly, “it was the adolescents’ confidence in their fathers’ availability that was of greater importance to the adolescents and to their development than the fathers’ actual involvement” (Elliot, 2010). Again, this shows that the daughter’s perception of her relationship is what is most important to how her father influences her.

One study looked at the effects of nonresident fathers on the likelihood that their adolescents will smoke. This study looked at adolescents in grades 7-12 and found that the more involved a nonresident father is, the less likely that his adolescents will pick up a regular smoking habit (Menning, 2006, p. 42). If the nonresident father smokes, it is more probable that the adolescents will smoke (Menning, 2006, p. 42). “…Nonresident fathers can make valuable contributions to their children’s well-being through their involvement … nonresident fathers can also hurt their adolescents’ well-being; specifically, modeling of smoking behavior has harmful consequences” (Menning, 2006, p. 43). This shows that even fathers that do not have the means to provide for their children financially can still positively influence their children (Menning, 2006).

These studies all show that not only do fathers need to have a high involvement in their children’s lives, but also that their children need to feel that the father is involved. Fathers need to realize that their involvement in their children’s lives does have an effect. Mothers are important to their children’s development, but responsive and involved fathers have quite the impact on their daughters’ sexual assertiveness and anorexia nervosa, on their sons’ self-image and reaction to daily stressors, and on their adolescents’ smoking habits. As a society, we need to urge fathers to be more involved and responsive to their children at every stage of development to help continue this positive cycle.


Beaty, L. (1995). Effects of paternal absence on male adolescents’ peer relations and self-image. Adolescence, 873-880.

Clark, J., & Barber, B. L. (1994). Adolescents in postdivorce and always-married families: self-esteem and perceptions of fathers’ interest. Journal of Marriage and the Family(56), 608-614.

Day, R. D., & Padilla-Walker, L. M. (2009). Mother and father connectedness and involvement during early adolescence. Journal of Family Psychology(23), 900-904.

Elliot, J. C. (2010). Fathers, daughters, and anorexia nervosa. Perspectives in psychiatric care, 37-47.

Fishel, E. (1985). The men in our lives. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Katz, J., & van der Kloet, E. (2010). The first man in her life: father emotional responsiveness during adolescence and college women’s sexual refusal behaviors. The American Journal of Family Therapy(38), 344-356.

Mallers, M. H., Charles, S. T., Neupert, S. D., & Almeida, D. M. (2010). Perceptions of childhood relationships with mother and father: daily emotional and stressor experiences in adulthood. Developmental Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a0021020.

Menning, C. L. (2006). Nonresident fathers’ involvement and adolescents’ smoking. Journal of health and social behavior, 32-46.

Popenoe, D. (2009). Families without fathers: fathers, marriage and children in American society. New Brunswick: Transaction.