10 More Things We’ve Learned About Dads

Scientists keep finding reasons why fathers matter. They also think it’s not a bad idea for dads to ask their kids, “How am I doing?”

Science gives fathers some props.
Science gives fathers some props. Photo courtesy of Flickr user anieto2K

I like Father’s Day as much as the next father, but face it–it is and always will be a Mother’s Day wannabe. Sure, everyone loves Dad, in that quick man-hug way, but they gush over Mom. Mother’s Day became an official U.S. holiday in 1914; it took almost another 50 years before we got around to formally celebrating that other parent.

Just a few weeks ago, there was much ado and even spasms of outcry over the Pew survey reporting that in 40 percent of American households, the mother is now the sole or primary breadwinner. Meanwhile, an earlier report that the number of stay-at-home dad has doubled in the past 10 years stirred nary a ripple. So it goes.

Fortunately, there are scientists out there who still consider fathers a subject meriting further investigation. Here are 10 studies of dads that have been published since last Father’s Day.

1) And just when you’d mastered “Cause I said so”: Recent research suggests that it’s a good idea for dads to ask for feedback on what kind of job they’re doing. The reason, says San Francisco State psychology professor Jeff Cookston, is that kids, particularly teenagers, can read a father’s actions differently than how it was meant. Explains Cookston: “You may think that you’re being a good parent by not being harsh on your kid, for instance, but your child may view that as ‘you’re not invested in me, you’re not trying.’” The study also found that girls tend to attribute a father’s good deeds to his “enduring aspects,” whereas boys are more likely to see them as being tied to specific situations.

2) Like father, like daughter: Dads who are open-minded about sexual roles are more likely to raise more ambitious daughters. So concludes a University of British Columbia study, which found that the fewer gender stereotypes a father holds, the more likely his daughters will want to develop professional careers.

3) Testosterone is so overrated: A Notre Dame study published last fall claimed to find a correlation between how close a father slept to his children and his testosterone level. It concluded that those dads who slept nearer to where his kids slept tended to have a lower testosterone level than those dads who slept farther away. Previous research has found that dads with higher testosterone levels tend to be less engaged with their kids.

4) My stress is your stress: It’s only been found to occur in mice so far, but scientists at the University of Pennsylvania say that stress that a father experiences during his lifetime, even in his youth, can be passed on to his children in a way that affects how they respond to stress. The father’s stressful experience apparently leaves a genetic marker in his sperm that can cause his children to have low reactivity to stress, which may sound like a good thing to inherit from the dear old dad, but actually can lead to emotional disorders.

5) Thanks Dad, you shouldn’t have: While we’re on the subject of mouse fathers, another study, this one from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, determined that mouse sons with less affectionate fathers tended to be equally distant from their own children, suggesting that paternal behavior can be passed from fathers to sons across multiple generations.

6) What a little shot of love can do: Not only does a little dose of oxytocin help fathers become more engaged with their babies, it also makes the kids more responsive. So contends a study at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, which reported that after the dads were given a hit of the so-called love hormone, they were more likely to touch and seek out the gaze of their child. And the baby’s own oxytocin level rose in response.

7) Ripple effects: Research at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom found that girls whose fathers weren’t around the first five years of their lives were more likely to struggle with depression when they were teenagers. Other studies have shown that the stronger negative impact of an absent father on the mental health of teenage girls could be because girls are more vulnerable to negative family events.

8) And now a word about happy teenagers: The more time teenagers spend alone with their dads, the higher their self-esteem, a 2012 Penn State study reported. It also concluded that the more time they spend with their fathers in a group setting, the better their social skills. The researchers didn’t see the same impact from one-on-one time with moms and speculated that it might be because fathers who choose to do things alone with their kids “go beyond social expectations to devote undivided attention to them.”

9) Everyone’s a winner: According to research at the University of Houston, fathers who are more physically engaged with their children—they play with them, they read to them–are less likely to be depressed or stressed. Which, according to the researchers, reinforces the notion that a father being active in his children’s lives isn’t just good for the kids.

10) Surely you don’t mean Homer Simpson: The portrayal of dads on TV and in books as “feckless,” and “incompetent” and little more than “sperm donors” is damaging children’s perceptions of fatherhood, says a study commissioned by the British parenting site, Netmums.com. Almost half of those surveyed agreed that cartoons, in particular, show dads as “lazy or stupid.” Said Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard: “The type of jokes aimed at dads would be banned if they were aimed at women, ethnic minorities or religious groups.”

So cut us a break. At least for a day.

Video bonus: Luke and Darth share a Lego’s Father’s Day.

Video bonus bonus: Dads as hip-hoppers get real about being fathers. Don’t call them feckless.

More from Smithsonian.com

Fathers Recognize Their Babies’ Cries Just As Well As Mothers

Deconstructing Dad

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.