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Gifts of a Father’s Presence. Part 3 of 3

Written by David R. Sprayberry, MD

My last few posts have revolved around the negative effects that absent fathers have on their children.  So far, we have talked about how the absence of a father contributes to poverty, substance use and abuse, psychological and behavioral problems, poorer educational performance, and increased participation in criminal activities.  Today we turn to the positive things that a present father brings to the lives of his children.

Effects on Infants

Let’s starts with infants.  Even in the first few days of life, the effect of a father’s presence can be discerned.  Newborns will preferentially turn their heads to the voice of their fathers over the voices of other men.  Premature infants whose fathers visit the NICU more often tend to have better weight gain during the hospitalization and perform better on behavioral and social-developmental tests during the first 18 months of life.  Infants who demonstrate the most emotional security and attachment have fathers who are affectionate, who spend time with their children, and who have a positive attitude.  Keep in mind that these effects are happening long before the child can even walk and talk.

Effects on Mothers

What about mothers?  When fathers are involved, their children’s mothers are more likely to start and continue breastfeeding.  Mothers with positive relationships with their children’s fathers also demonstrate better parenting skill and fewer emotional difficulties.  Mothers who are feeling supported are more likely to encourage the fathers to be involved with the children.

Early Childhood

Fathers can help reduce the likelihood of stranger anxiety in their children.  Toddlers with present fathers are also less likely to worry and less likely to disrupt the play of other kids.  Preschool children of involved fathers have been found to have higher cognitive development.  They also exhibit more empathy and have a greater sense of mastery over their environment than their peers with less involved dads.

Long-term Benefits

Children who live with both parents are more likely to finish high school, be economically self-sufficient, and be physically healthy.  Fathers have a unique and strong influence on their children’s gender role development and serve as important role models for both boys and girls.

Discipline

Fathers who set appropriate limits for their children and who provide sufficient autonomy have children with higher academic achievement.  Fathers who discipline harshly and/or inconsistently have a negative impact on emotional and academic development.

Educational Benefits

When dads are involved, kids tend to have improved educational outcomes.  Children of fathers who are involved in their children’s education are more likely to achieve better grades, more likely to enjoy school, more likely to participate in extracurricular activities, and are less likely to have repeated a grade.

Additional Benefits

There are numerous other benefits that result from fathers who are involved.  Fathers who spend time alone with their kids and perform routine childcare at least twice a week raise the most compassionate adults.  Physical play with fathers promotes intellectual development and social competence.
Fathers are capable of doing incredible good to their kids by staying involved in their lives.  Dads, you only have a few years with your kids at home.  Make the most of them and be their dad!  Perfection is not necessary.  Presence and participation are.
Dr. Sprayberry is a practicing pediatrician and believes there is more to medicine than shuffling patients in and out the door. To read more about Dr. Sprayberry’s medical trips to Kenya, visit his blog, Pediatrics Gone to the Dawgs.


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O Father, Where Art Thou? Part 2 of 3

Written by David R. Sprayberry, MD

In my last post, I introduced the problem of absent fathers in the U.S. and described the magnitude of the issue. What I hope to do today is to present a strong case for why fathers need to be very intentional about staying involved in the lives of their children.

This topic is important to me for several reasons. First, I am a father of three children (hopefully four sometime in the next year or so) and I want to be the kind of father they need. Second, I am tired of seeing friends separate and/or divorce. If these posts do anything to help just one father decide not to leave, it will have been a worthwhile endeavor. Third, I see kids who are suffering the consequences of father absence in my office very frequently and I am often called upon to help the kids deal with them. I see these kids spiral downward in the wake of their parents’ divorces and would love to see less of it.

So, what are the consequences to children when their fathers are absent from the home?

Let’s start with poverty.

Young children living with unmarried mothers are five times more likely to be poor than other children and ten times more likely to be extremely poor. Nearly 75% of children living in single-parent homes will experience poverty before the age of 11. Only 20% of children from two-parent homes will do the same. Homelessness is more common among children from broken homes. Finally, children of teen mothers are more likely to be unemployed when they become adults.

Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs.

Children who live apart from their fathers are 4.3 times more likely to smoke than those who grow up with their fathers in the home. Adolescents living with both biological parents less frequently engage in heavy alcohol use. Latchkey children, children who have daily unsupervised periods at home after school, are more common when the father is absent from the home. These children are more than twice as likely to abuse drugs as children who are not left alone after school and begin abusing substances at younger ages. Latchkey children are also at greater risk for teen pregnancy and are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse.

Emotional and Behavioral Consequences

Children from single-mother homes have a greater risk for psychosocial problems, an effect which is over and above the impact of coming from a low-income home. Young girls experience the emotional loss of a father as a rejection of them. Continued lack of involvement by the father is experienced as ongoing rejection.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is significantly more common in youths with an absent parent. Children with eating disorders and children who self-mutilate (e.g., “cutting”) often come from homes where fathers are absent. Antisocial symptoms are also more common in kids with absent fathers, a risk that is not mitigated by the presence of a stepfather. Even more frightening is this: three out of four teen suicides occur in households where a parent has been absent.

Education and Development

Children living with a single parent have lower GPAs, lower college aspirations, worse attendance, and higher drop-out rates. Fatherless children are 1.7-2 times as likely to drop out of school. Father absence has also been associated with delayed motor skill development in preschool children. I would suggest that this is due to the fact that the way fathers interact with their kids is different than mothers. Play with dads is often characterized by physicality – wrestling, tickling, tossing, spinning, etc. This physical play certainly contributes positively to the motor development of children.

Criminality

Given what we have already discussed, it is likely no surprise that criminality is more common among children with absent fathers. Delinquent behavior is more likely in father-absent homes, especially when combined with socioeconomic disadvantage. Children born to teen mothers are 3 times more likely to be incarcerated during their adolescence and early twenties than children of older mothers (as you will recall, children of teen mothers frequently have absent fathers). Boys born to unmarried teen mothers are 8-10 times more likely to become chronic juvenile offenders.

Sexuality

Children with an absent parent have been shown to be more likely to be perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse. Teens from two-parent households have been found to be less likely to be sexually active. Studies have shown that about 70% of teen pregnancies are to children of single parents.

Girls from father-absent homes tend to begin puberty earlier, have sex earlier, and have their first children earlier than girls from father-present homes. According to a study conducted in the U.S. and New Zealand, the risk of increased sexual activity is greater the earlier in a girl’s life that the father becomes absent. Higher socioeconomic status does not protect the girl from these effects.

Medical Consequences

Unmarried mothers are less likely to obtain prenatal care and are more likely to have a low birthweight baby. Infant mortality rates are higher for unmarried mothers and teen mothers (roughly 50% higher for teens). Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has also been shown to be more common in children of unmarried and teen mothers. Asthma and obesity are both more likely in children of single mothers, and blood sugars are more poorly controlled in diabetic children of single mothers.

For married men and women, hopefully this post will help strengthen your conviction to stay married and help maximize the positive impact you can have on your children. For divorced men and unmarried fathers, I hope this will convince you to stay as involved as possible in the lives of your children in order maximize your positive influence. For mothers who are not married to the father of their children, my desire is that you will encourage the fathers to remain involved, so long as they do not pose a threat to the children.

My final post on fatherhood will summarize the positive things that occur when a father is present and some practical ways that pediatricians can encourage fathers to remain involved.

Dr. Sprayberry is a practicing pediatrician and believes there is more to medicine than shuffling patients in and out the door. To read more about Dr. Sprayberry’s medical trips to Kenya, visit his blog, Pediatrics Gone to the Dawgs.

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Who’s Your Daddy?: Part 1 of 3

Written by David R. Sprayberry, MD

You have undoubtedly heard this question used as a taunt of another, but let’s take the question seriously.

What do you know about your dad? Do you know him or do you know of him? I grew up in a two-parent home with my birth parents.

Things were not always perfect. I can tell you the positive things about my dad and some negatives.

The reason, though, that I can tell you the negatives is that I know my father and I know him well because he was there.

He was there at the dinner table. He was there at my baseball practices. He was there at my basketball games. He was at all the school functions and awards nights.

He was there.

During my pediatric residency, one of my classmates was posed this question by one of the kids he was seeing in the clinic: Are you my daddy? Sadly, this was not a joke.

The child had no idea who his father was. More and more American kids are growing up not knowing their fathers at all or having minimal relationships with them. Their dads are just not there, either partially or fully.

The absence of a father from a child’s life can do immense harm and the presence of a father can do immense good.

Scope of the problem

In discussing this issue, it is important to define what an absent father is. In general, when we use the term absent father, we are speaking of fathers who are physically absent from the child’s primary home. This includes fathers who have only joint custody of their children.

The degree of this issue is immense. Over one-third of all U.S. children live absent from their biological fathers. Nearly half of all children from disrupted families have not seen their fathers in the past year.

Nearly 20% of kids in female headed households have not seen their fathers in 5 years.

From 1960 to 2000, the proportion of children living with just one parent increased from 9% to 28% over that 40 year span. When the statistics are broken down by race, results become even more alarming.

As of the year 2000, 20.9% of all white children lived in single-parent homes. At the same time, 31.8% of all Hispanic children and 57.7% of all black children were living in single-parent homes.

The reasons for the racial differences are debatable, but what is clear is that this is a problem that is not limited to a single race.

Reasons for father absence

Why do we have so many absent fathers? There are many factors that contribute to this problem, but a large proportion of absent fathers are absent for one of the following reasons.

One of the largest reasons that fathers are absent from the homes of their children is divorce. The number of currently divorced adults has nearly sextupled from 4.3 million in 1970 to 23.7 million in 2010.

The number of divorces per year has increased from 390,000 in 1960 to 1.2 million in 2009.

There are recent reports of decreasing divorce rates, but these decreases are generally looking at divorces as a proportion of the general population, not as a proportion of marriages. Additionally, the marriage rate has declined considerably, likely leading to an increase in the second factor contributing to absent fathers.

A second significant reason that fathers are absent is births out-of-wedlock. Forty-one percent of all newborns in the U.S. were born out-of-wedlock in 2009, up from 33% in 2000.

About 75% of all teen births are out-of wedlock. In many of these cases, the father never lives in the child’s home, even at the beginning.

A smaller, but still significant, reason for father absence is incarceration. As of 1991, there were an estimated 423,000 fathers in prison with children under the age of 18. That number has increased to 744,200 as of 2007.

To be fair, many men may not be able to control the amount of time they are with their children. They may want to be involved, but are prevented by factors beyond their control.

As a pediatrician, I understand how difficult it is to balance a demanding work schedule and family life, and I don’t always do a great job at maintaining that balance.

I point these issues out not for the sake of being critical, but in order to spur men on to take a larger role in the lives of their children and to become more physically and emotionally present for them. We have a relatively short time to raise our children. Let’s make the most of it.

My next post (the second in a three-part series) will discuss the consequences of father absence and the benefits of father presence.

Dr. Sprayberry is a practicing pediatrician and believes there is more to medicine than shuffling patients in and out the door. To read more about Dr. Sprayberry’s medical trips to Kenya, visit his blog, Pediatrics Gone to the Dawgs.

 

Photo credit:  Chin.Musik