There is a growing interest in the science of fatherhood. While there is no shortage of research regarding the importance of engaged fathers, the majority of studies have focused on the crucial need for children to have dad involved in their lives.
In cases of divorce, that need is magnified as the divorce might change what fatherhood looks like, but it does not affect how much kids still count on their fathers.
More recently, specific research has highlighted the physiological changes dads experience through different stages of fatherhood.
Moreover, researchers are fine-tuning how they measure fathers’ contributions to the upbringing of their children. The result is that we know more about dads – their importance, how they interact with their kids, and what their value is – than ever before.
Here are four things recent research has taught us about dads and fatherhood.
Dads bond differently than mothers
Typically, the yardsticks that researchers have used to assess parent-child bonding have been tested mostly with mothers and tend to best capture behaviors more common to moms.
Natasha Cabrera, who is a professor of human development at the University of Maryland in College Park, recently told the Wall Street Journal that one of the major reasons for this maternal bias is that it has traditionally been difficult to find fathers to participate in lab studies because they work long hours and are less likely to live with their children.
A number of recent studies have come up with new criteria that better illustrate how effectively fathers can parent. One study, conducted by Kent State University professor Kathryn Kerns, discovered that fathers scored better when examining the parent-child bond after adding questions to her assessment about whether parents provided encouragement and instilled confidence.
Dads experience physiological changes too
Men might not be physically connected to their child for nine months during pregnancy like moms are, but their bodies and minds still evolve so that they’re better suited to parenthood.
Four years ago, anthropologist Lee Gettler produced the first study showing that men’s testosterone levels drop when they become fathers. Testosterone is associated with aggressive behavior, so a drop in the chemical is likely conducive to more effective parenting.
Dads also get a boost of oxytocin – a chemical known for its role in strengthening the bond between mothers and babies – while caring for their children.
These changes continue as the father-child bond strengthens. A study by Yale University researchers published in Social Neuroscience discovered that fatherhood can lead to changes in the brain that spur improved multitasking abilities, more emotional responsiveness, and help dads become more perceptive to their child’s needs.
Fatherhood can improve bad habits
A 19-year study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2011 concluded that after men become fathers for the first time, they show significant decreases in crime, tobacco and alcohol use.
“This research suggests that fatherhood can be a transformative experience, even for men engaging in high risk behavior,” said David Kerr, assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University and lead author of the study. “This presents a unique window of opportunity for intervention, because new fathers might be especially willing and ready to hear a more positive message and make behavioral changes.”
Dads and kids are closer than ever
Perhaps most encouraging for all families is that it appears that fathers have better relationships with their children than ever before.
In a recent survey in the United Kingdom, more than six of 10 dads said they have a closer relationship with their kids than they had with their own fathers. Seventy percent said they play a bigger role in their children’s lives than their own dads did.
It likely helps that dads and kids are spending more time together. According to a report published by The Council of Economic Advisors, fathers are devoting 4.6 more hours of childcare than they did in 1965. In a 2012 Pew Research survey, 78% of fathers said they spent at least as much time with their kids as their own fathers spent with them and 46% said they spend more time with their children than their dads did.