The Transformative Power of Fatherhood
Why dads make a difference to their children and communities
W. Bradford Wilcox

As we prepare to celebrate Father’s Day this Sunday, National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez discussed the importance of fathers and fatherhood with W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: This week, the Institute for American Values, the Center of the American Experiment, and the Institute for Family Studies released a new report, “Mother Bodies, Father Bodies.” The report asks (and answers): “Do mothers and fathers experience parenthood in the same ways?” Isn’t the answer to this question obvious?

W. BRADFORD WILCOX: Well, not really. What is obvious to anyone is that women are changed much more visibly and physically than men by the experience of pregnancy. But what’s fascinating about the new science on fatherhood, spotlighted in the report, is that we’re learning more about the ways in which men are transformed physically, socially, and emotionally by parenthood.

A recent study from the Philippines suggests, for instance, that men’s testosterone drops after they become parents. The figure below shows that Filipino men who got partnered and then had children experienced the largest drops in testosterone over time. This pattern suggests that men are being prepared by Mother Nature, provided they live with the mother of their kids, to settle down and become more attentive to their family. In the words of psychologist Anne Storey, research like this “suggests that hormones may play a role in priming males to provide care for young.” The growing body of research on dads, then, indicates that fatherhood is a bigger deal for men, even at the biological level, than we have appreciated up to this point.

LOPEZ: How else do men’s lives change when they become fathers?

WILCOX: After kids come along, men are more likely to be engaged civically in their communities in activities ranging from youth soccer to church. Furthermore, they typically work harder and earn more money after they become dads, provided that they live with the mother of their children. One study found that “married, residential, biological fatherhood is associated with wage gains of about 4 percent, but unmarried residential fathers, nonresidential fathers, and stepfathers do not receive a fatherhood premium.” So, men become more engaged at work and in civil society in the wake of assuming the role of fatherhood.
 

LOPEZ: What about the children? Do fathers play a distinctive role in children’s lives?

WILCOX: In the report, we acknowledge that mothers and fathers can and often do perform similar roles in providing the affection, attention, and discipline that kids need to thrive. The report also notes, however, that dads tend to take on a distinctive role when it comes to providing for, playing with, and challenging their children to confront life’s difficulties and opportunities. For instance, when it comes to providing, dads earn, on average, about 69 percent of the income in today’s married families. And, regarding their distinctive approach to play, the report notes that “fathers are more likely to engage in surprising and rough-and-tumble play. They chase, tickle, and wrestle, especially with their preschool-age children.” Indeed, research by psychologist Ross Parke indicates that children who regularly engage in this type of play with their fathers end up being more popular at school.

Dads also help to engender a sense of self-control in their children. For instance, one study found that boys from intact, married families are about half as likely to end up in jail or prison by the time they turn 30, compared to boys from single-mother families, even after controlling for a range of socioeconomic factors, as the figure below indicates.