A father is as a father does


WASHINGTON -- Father's Day cards: They'll come to us this year on folded red construction paper adorned with misshapen handmade hearts, scripted with treasured misspellings ("Deer Dad: Your the beast!"), printed with poems affectionately conjured by Hallmark, and penned with heartfelt notes that give us warm fuzzies.

There's a good chance, however, that no dad in America will get a card that says any of the following:

"Dear Dad: Thank you for making me more securely attached."

"Here's a little something for that good report card I got -- I'm so proud of you!"

"I'll never forget the time you promoted my relationship competency."

But that's the thanks we should get, according to the latest research on the impact that involved fathers have on their children.

At the first Father's Day of the 21st century, we have for the first time a solid body of research on how good fathering builds good kids. We fathers should use this research to bask a bit, then to make ourselves better.

Sure, common sense says that we make a difference. But you wouldn't know it by reading the past several decades' worth of parenting literature or studies.

Stories and studies about parental influence on children largely really have been about maternal influence; fathers have been treated as accesses (namely, wallets). In the early 1990s, according to the Benton Foundation (which focuses on social policy), "studies done of motherhood outnumbered those done of fatherhood by at lest 5 to 1." Benton notes that when the federal government conducted the nation's largest-ever study of parental attitudes in the early '90s, it surveyed only mothers.

But the '90s brought an explosion of interest in fatherhood from every corner of society, including government, media, religion and academia. Here is some of what researchers have found in the past decade:

Fathers who are affectionate, spend time with their children and have a positive attitude are more likely to have securely attached infants. (Developmental Psychology, 1992)

"Children are more likely to get mostly A's if their fathers are involved in their schools ... Father's involvement seems more important than mothers'." (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997)

A father's interaction with his child promotes the child's physical well-being, perceptual abilities and competency for relatedness with others. (Journal of Family Issues, 1993)

A 26-year-long longitudinal study found that parental involvement is the most important factor in the development of a child's empathy. The most compassionate adults turned out to be those whose fathers performed routine child care at least twice a week. (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1990)

Children who have regular contact with a father (or father figure) who lives in the home or visits on a regular basis have fewer cognitive and behavior problems. (Child Development, 1999.)

The more fathers are involved in parenting and household tasks, the less likely that their children will be neglected. (Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, February, 2000.)

What does this mean for dads in real life?

It means that when you fall out of bed for your infant's 3 a.m. "I want warm milk" shriek, you're not just doing her and her mother an immediate favor. When you cradle her as she fills her belly, you're building a bond more powerful than you know. That bond grows with every diaper change and bath.

It means that helping your boy see why x=5 has an impact beyond that night's homework, and being at his school every now and then packs an even bigger wallop. We get this added impact by coaching teams, chaperoning class trips or attending PTA meetings (which typically have as many men as do bridal showers).

It means that when you and your kid kick a ball, play checkers or tell bedtime stories, you're increasing her ability to build a healthy body and healthy relationships.

It means the more you do with your child, the less likely you'll get a call from the principal to discuss his budding delinquency.

What stands out about these activities is that they don't stand out. We're talking about routine, not made-to-be-remembered excursions to Disney. We're talking about making lunch together, taking the kids on treks to the paint store (even though it slows us down) and staying home with the kids when mom runs errands. These are not formulas for building perfect kids; these are the ways that dads increase the odds that their children will be physically, emotionally and intellectually fit.

All dads have this power: married and single, custodial and non, bio and step. The key is to make your interaction seem so regular that you and your kid don't even think you're doing anything special.

Oh, but you are.

Patrick Boyle, father of two, is editor of Youth Today, the national newspaper on youth work based in Washington.

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