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NYMP Q&A: Do Fathers Matter?

Paul Raeburn, journalist, scientist, father of five, and author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked, shares why fathers really matter, how fathers influence their children, and how the picture of modern fatherhood is changing.

father and daughter roughhousingDo moms really have greater influence on their offspring? A new book counters the theory that dads are just Plan B, proving that fathers in fact have a crucial impact on the health, life, and brain power of their children. In Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), author Paul Raeburn, a journalist, scientist, and NYC father of five, digs into the paternal realms of anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, genetics, and neuroscience to reveal the profound importance of fathers.

Raeburn’s book shows how fathers who are involved with their children have a reduced risk of illness and mortality; children whose fathers play with them and read to them have fewer behavioral problems in school; and children with involved fathers are less likely to smoke or suffer from depression. It’s a fascinating study in the realities of male parenting and one man’s desire to determine whether, why, and how fathers influence the family dynamic—and vice versa.

As a father of five, did you write the book to fight your corner as a dad?

The book comes more from a question than a fight. We know a lot about the science of motherhood, but we just haven’t seen a lot of studies about what fathers contribute. I figured I would do some actual research—and the results dramatically alter our understanding of the importance of fatherhood.

Why do you write that fathers “add fun” to family life while mothers “worry, chastise, and punish”?

Fathers play differently with their kids. On average, fathers are more likely to engage in unstructured play, jump out of corners to surprise their kids, roll on the floor, etc. This happens so early in life that research shows babies actually reach for the father first—they know that dad means playtime. Although moms and dads obviously have temperamental differences, dads play by slightly different rules. Parenting experts used to say that dads needed to be strict disciplinarians. Now that’s not the story—the accepted myth was essentially debunked. It’s more about the type of relationship. Children respond to a kind, engaged rapport with their father.

How has today’s economic landscape altered the role of fathers?

For hundreds of thousands of years, children spent all day every day with their father working the land, hunting, etc. As soon as the kids were old enough to be helpful, they were out with their father. So it’s really kind of new for kids to be at home with their mothers. But now there are more stay-at-home dads than ever before—and many men have found that this is a gift! The economic pressures that drove many women into the workforce have created an opportunity for fathers to be far more involved with their children than they have been in the past.

Which parent tends to feel more conflict between work and family today?

The downside of the economic shift is that fathers are now experiencing the pressure to have it all. If a man stayed at home in the 1940s, it would raise a lot of questions, so for the past 70 years it was traditionally the mother who was the most conflicted since she was the one to leave the family to bring in the second income. But today, working fathers are more conflicted. They are being pushed harder at work, the boundaries between work and family life are blurring, and they work significantly more hours per week than men without children.

Do you have any practical advice for mothers to make the role of the male parent more impactful?

Some women cherish and resent being the primary caregiver. Many mothers say they would like more help with child care and housework, but reports suggest that 60 to 80 percent of mothers actually do not want their husbands to be more involved. Some mothers actively discourage that through ‘maternal gatekeeping.’ For example, if Mom criticizes and fixes Dad’s baby diapering, Dad just thinks, “What is the point!” Mothers need to make sure they’ve opened the ‘gate.’

Are there any fathers in the public arena who you feel offer up a well-rounded example of fatherhood?

Since we don’t see public figures in their homes, we don’t truly know how they behave. Barack Obama has certainly spoken on the importance of fathers—he missed his own father being around, and says that whenever he himself is home, he always has dinner together with his family.

Do you have any advice for single mothers?

Studies have shown that fathers do provide unique things for kids. Therefore, single mothers should try to involve a male in the family somehow—a friend, brother, or uncle, to set a male example. From an evolutionary standpoint, if both parents didn’t contribute something unique, we wouldn’t have the situation we have now. In the animal kingdom, there are plenty of instances of fathers who procreate and never return. But it takes between 15 and 18 years for a human infant to feed and shelter himself, and that amount of effort requires as much help as possible.

Paul Raeburn, author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, has written for The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, Discover, and many other publications. He writes the “About Fathers” blog for Psychology Today. Raeburn lives in New York City with his wife and children.


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