Ask about heroes and Pleasant Grove software engineer Tom Black will tell you that his dad has been his hero his entire life. Ask for adjectives and he describes a man who’s “loyal” and “hardworking.”
Bill Black, 73, of Peoria, Arizona, came from “kind of a rough background” growing up. His parents divorced when he was about 12 and he had to help support his mom and siblings. But he’s always been a great dad to his own children, his son says.
“I have learned a lot from the way he approaches responsibility and he’s always been a super hard worker. I had that example to emulate my whole life,” Tom Black said of his father, who retired from a career as a Boeing engineer.
“He’s also just a really outstanding person; he always just tried to do the right thing. I consider him one of my best friends — always have, even when I was in high school. I could talk to him about whatever and get good advice. He’s always been supportive,” Tom added.
The Bill Black his son describes fits nicely into the definition Brigham Young University sociology professor Kevin Shafer and other experts offer of a good dad. The best dads are involved and engaged, they said.
“They’re warm. They’re affectionate. They’re emotionally supportive and they spend time with their kids. They do things the kids want to do. They discipline their children appropriately; they avoid harsh discipline. And they’re engaged in caregiving, whatever that looks like, depending on the age of the child,” Shafer said.
That a father is involved in caregiving matters significantly, he added.
Similarly, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said that a good dad is emotionally tied to his children in a constructive, affirmative way.
The dad factor
Studies have plenty to say about the gifts good dads can bestow on their sons and daughters.
Kids who grow up with a good dad are more apt to stay in school and less likely to go to jail, compared to kids with absent fathers or lesser male role models. When they grow up, those kids are more likely to have high-quality jobs and healthy relationships, too. And that’s not all.
Warren Farrell, co-author of “The Boy Crisis,” told the Deseret News that children with involved dads benefit in more than 50 statistically verified ways. And while both girls and boys reap benefits from a solid father-child relationship, boys may be somewhat more intensely impacted.
Sons and daughters experience better physical health, mental health, academic success, economic success and have better marriages themselves if they grew up in healthy relationships with their fathers, he said.
Fathers help their children develop empathy. They help children learn how to delay gratification, which Farrell calls the biggest predictor of success or failure in life.
Dads contribute to their children’s social skills, bonding and self-discipline, among other benefits. Children can even learn how to follow the rules while tackling challenges if dad guides them through such behavior and emulates it himself, according to Farrell.
Besides that, children with good dads are much less likely to feel bullied or become bullies, to struggle with depression or to take their own lives.
“We know that when fathers are more involved and engaged in the lives of their kids, those kids do better developmentally; they hit their developmental milestones at appropriate times,” said Shafer “They have better cognitive development.”
Shafer also noted that children who have strong bonds with their father exhibit fewer behavioral problems.
Studies show that teenage girls are less likely to become pregnant, compared to those who lack a strong relationship with their dad. They’re also less apt to engage in risky sexual behavior, including casual sex.
“Across the board, when you think about what are the things that measure child well-being, involved fathers check all the boxes, so to speak,” Shafer said.
Not insignificantly, good fathers also have positive impacts on moms, increasing the impact on kids. “When dads are involved and engaged, moms are less stressed, they’re mentally healthier. They’re physically healthier and have less complicated pregnancies and deliveries,” he added.
Fatherhood’s also good for dads. When men become fathers, they tend to be healthier, more invested in work and more productive, according to Shafer. They have better mental health over the long run.
Communities benefit, too.
“There’s actually been some research that shows that involved fatherhood is really good for communities. It helps build social capital within neighborhoods and in communities — particularly when dads are involved in things like extracurricular activities and with schools. Those seem to have particularly strong benefits for communities,” said Shafer.
Shafer said that he, like Black, had a good dad, although fatherhood looked a little different in the 1980s when he was growing up than it does in the 2020s.
He credits his dad with giving him patience. “He was a really patient father. I don’t remember a time that he actually ever raised his voice at me and I made plenty of mistakes,” he said.
Any dad can strive to be good
“Less college, less work and more prison for young men growing up without their biological father” is the subtitle of a research brief published Friday by the Institute for Family Studies. In it, Wilcox, Wendy Wang and Alysse ElHage say children do best when they grow up in homes with both of their biological parents. That’s a finding that spans ideological divides, they say.
“The decline of marriage and the rise of fatherlessness in America remain at the center of some of the biggest problems facing the nation: crime and violence, school failure, deaths of despair and children in poverty,” the three wrote.
Their report said 21% of boys who didn’t grow up in intact married families have been arrested by ages 15-19, compared to 19% of those who grew up with their biological dad in an intact family. The number who are incarcerated by age 28-34 is 21%, compared to 9% of those who grew up in intact married families.
“Lacking the day-to-day involvement, guidance and positive example of their father in the home, and the financial advantages associated with having him in the household, these boys are more likely to act up, lash out, flounder in school and fail at work as they move into adolescence and adulthood. Even though not all fathers play a positive role in their children’s lives, on average, boys benefit from having a present and involved father,” they said.
Wang, research director for the institute, noted that they didn’t differentiate between good dads and bad ones. They just looked at children raised with their fathers in the home and those without their fathers in the home.
Obviously, part of the story is that having a second pair of hands in the family is helpful, said Wilcox, who is also an Institute for Family Studies senior fellow. But he noted that in the average married family with kids, dads still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning, so they play an important role in everything from providing for basic needs like decent housing and food to having money to hire a tutor and whether a family can afford youth sports.
Men who don’t live with their children sometimes struggle to maintain regular contact, Wilcox said. And dads who see their children on weekends or on odd schedules may have a tendency to be a “Disney dad, spoiling their kids, only doing fun things with them,” he said.
Dads who share a home with their family certainly have an easier time connecting with their kids, Schafer said. Nonresidential dads for different reasons might find it harder to spend time with the kids — especially if the relationship with the children’s mother isn’t great.
A healthy relationship with children includes setting limits, communicating expectations and making children do their homework and household chores, Wilcox said. Nonresidential dads can try to approximate how he would probably have behaved had the parents not parted ways in terms of having high expectations and encouraging kids to embrace life’s challenges and persevere when things are hard.
Still, for some dads who live apart from their kids, options may be more limited. “Writing letters, phone calls — even if you’re not in physical proximity, knowing your dad cares and wants to be involved to the extent that they can is really important,” Marcy Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Fatherly’s Joshua A. Kirsch.
As a backup, buying love isn’t the worst idea, Kirsch wrote, citing Carlson. “There’s tons of evidence that financial support of kids is good for their outcomes. If dads can provide for their children, that goes a long way.”
Married, separated, divorced, never married — Shafer said that the better the co-parenting relationship, the more likely dad is to be involved and engaged. Healthy relationships between parents is a gift they can give their children, he said.
Research says “kids benefit substantially when their dads are involved in their lives,” regardless of residential status, Shafer said. “When dads are spending time with their kids, when they’re emotionally supportive, when they go to their events, when kids perceive their fathers to be really engaged in their lives, that seems to be what matters the most.”
“I’m all for intact families and there are really positive benefits to that. But it’s not simply that if dad is at home that has automatic benefits,” said Shafer.
Experts agree that warmth matters. When a father is in the home, but cold, indifferent or disengaged, he doesn’t contribute in the same ways as a loving, supportive dad.
“If that’s the case, your kids are not going to benefit as much from your presence,” said Wilcox, who pointed out there are “toxic fathers,” too, including those who are authoritarian or otherwise difficult or dangerous.
Shafer noted that a warm, committed stepfather provides many of the same benefits a good dad provides. Same with what’s called “social fathers,” who don’t have a romantic relationship with mom, but have important relationships with the children.
“We think of fatherhood in much broader terms than we think of motherhood,” said Shafer.
Connecting the dots
Shafer said women often say they mother the way they do because that’s how they were mothered. Fathers often say they want to be a better dad or a more affectionate dad than theirs was. “It’s an interesting phenomenon,” he added.
Experts say dads should try to be role models, not examples of what not to do.
Still, it’s not just good parenting that improves a child’s life, but dad parenting, said Farrell, who notes that moms and dads generally differ in parenting style in multiple ways. Two of the most obvious are dad’s greater propensity to roughhouse and also to enforce boundaries, he said.
He outlines how those two things help develop many of the other desirable traits: When dads roughhouse with their kids, the excitement and challenge help them bond. If they get too rough, dad is likely to set and enforce boundaries: “OK, Jimmy, you can’t win by putting your elbow in your brother’s eye and the way you pushed your sister was too aggressive.” If the aggression isn’t tempered, dad’s likely to stop the playing, regardless of children’s protests.
The next time they play, they know they have to be less aggressive, which teaches both postponed gratification and discipline, Farrell said. They see the role of empathy, they learn more social skills and they also get the be challenged and still obey the rules.
Kids also interact differently with fathers than with mothers, said Wilcox. When moms approach young children, the little ones often calm down. With dad, their eyes get big and they “tense up in a good way,” ready for something exciting to happen. That’s because dads are more likely to give their children more latitude to explore and do risky things.
Parents even hold young children differently. A mother is more apt to cuddle the baby facing her, while dads seem to turn them outward to face the world. Babies benefit from both.
But Wilcox said that dad’s approach is “helpful in cultivating a sense of independence, and fortitude and confidence” as kids learn to navigate the world.