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Opinion: What do fathers add to a family?

Amid the gun violence, some wonder if fatherlessness could be to blame for teenage shooters. Studies show the impact a good father can have on child development

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Around Father’s Day each year, I think of the impact my own father — Boyd Willden — has had on the lives of so many people. He passed away some years ago, but his positive influence will continue to be felt by his seven children, 33 grandchildren, numerous great-grandchildren, and so many others for decades to come. Strong fatherhood is so important in our society today. 

After reading a recent article in the Deseret News titled, “Are fatherlessness and societal breakdown to blame for mass shootings?” about the struggle that so many Americans are having right now to understand mass shootings and what can be done to prevent them — I thought I would share a few of my own recent learnings.

It just happens to be that over the weekend I read a long report titled, “Engaged Fatherhood for Men, Families and Gender Equality,” which focused on why engaged fathers are so important in families, communities and society. I was particularly intrigued with the findings shared on the link between engaged fathers and the health/well-being of their children. 

Research has found that a father’s involvement during the prenatal period has a positive impact on birth outcomes. During infancy, one study found that newborn infants who were given “skin-to-skin care” by their fathers resulted in similar positive benefits to mothers when they do the same. Another study found that children with fathers who were more involved during infancy had lower levels of mental health symptoms measured at the age of 9. Additionally, one study reported that, because fathers tend to play with their infants more than mothers, particularly at high intensity levels, these interactions encouraged children’s exploration and independence, while mothers’ interactions focused on safety and balance — both being important for a child’s development. 

During childhood, studies have found that children from families without a father present had “poorer adherence to treatment, psychological adjustment, and health status than those with fathers present.” Other studies have found positive links between father involvement and their child’s social competencies and the development of language skills in unique ways. 

Adolescence is of course a foundational time in life, and large-scale studies have found direct connections between a father’s involvement (if the quality of the parent-child relationship is strong) and a decreased likelihood of risk behaviors in adolescence, with a particularly strong link to their son’s behaviors. Another study also found that a positive relationship with fathers was a predictor of lower rates of behavior problems in adolescent boys, but also found that their daughters had fewer psychological problems.

Now, I typically write about how to strengthen the impact of girls and women within Utah, so this piece might surprise a few readers. Yet, the research makes it clear that daughters who have engaged and involved fathers — prenatal through adulthood — will have so many more opportunities to be healthy, educated, confident and truly able to thrive. 

So, what can we all do?

We can help fathers understand how vital their influence is in their children’s lives. We can provide more resources to help them gain tools that can strengthen their competencies in this important role. As women, we can invite fathers in to be more involved in all stages — including prenatal — in a child’s life.

Remember that when men spend time with their children — it is not “babysitting.” It is fatherhood. 

Utah employers can provide family-friendly programs, initiatives and policies — like maternal and paternal leave policies — so that both parents can create and maintain strong and healthy families. Families are the foundation of Utah, and we need to support public policies that help us create more family-friendly workplaces. 

I dearly loved my own father because of the positive influence he was in my life. And I also celebrate my husband, Greg, for his commitment and engagement in raising our children. We must support fathers of all kinds (including biological, foster, adoptive, stepfather or grandfather) as they step forward to be even more engaged with their children in years to come. So, whatever the connection is between fatherlessness and antisocial behavior, it is clear that men and fathers have a profound impact on children.

Fathers matter.

As the report I’ve cited earlier states: “Engaged fathers help insure healthy children, healthy families, healthy workforces, and healthy communities.”

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.