January 19, 2021

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The important role of fathers across the lifespan of their sons.

14 min read


Thirty years ago, fathers were described as ‘forgotten contributors to child development’ (Lamb, 1975) Not a huge amount has changed up until a few years ago with some governmental organizations starting to recognize the positives of fathers influence in a child’s development. Unfortunately, there are still many negative stereotypes lingering in this regard. Some of these negative stereotypes overshadow what evidence is out there on the benefits of paternal influence. Traditionally the majority of studies on parental influence have primarily focused on mothers.

Whatever the area of study – from interactions with new-born babies to teenagers – the evidence suggests that paternal styles closely resemble maternal styles. Other factors need to be taken into account: a general trend for mothers to be more sensitive to their children and clear cultural variations in both Maternal and Paternal styles of parenting. (Lamb 1975)  Men’s perceived psychological well-being is also related to their paternal sensitivity (Broom, 1994). Men appear to react to the needs of their infants and partners: When mothers are depressed postnatally, infants have more positive interactions with their non-depressed fathers (Hossain et al, 1994).

Early childhood

While fathers do not physically carry the growing foetus and get to experience all of the physical changes a mother goes through, nature also makes chemical changes to the Fathers hormonal levels when the baby is born. According to Storey et al (2000), new fathers, show similar changes in hormonal levels, decreased levels of testosterone and estradiol and increased levels of prolactin and cortisol around the time of the birth of their infants. From birth, the biological bond is strong. In a study done on American and Israeli fathers, after only 60 minutes of exposure fathers were able to recognize their infants by touching their hands, even when blindfolded and denied olfactory access (Bader and Phillips 1999; Kaitz, Shiri, Danziger, Hershko & Eidelmann, 1994)

As a baby becomes a toddler, the role of fathers becomes ever more significant. Rough play – Roughhousing stimulates neuron growth within the cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain. Kids who roughhouse are able to distinguish between innocent play and aggression; therefore, it helps children develop social and problem-solving skills. Animals with the highest level of moral development also engage in the most play, especially physical play. Rough and tumble play is a key system for humans to develop physical coordination, strength, agility, spatial awareness, risk management, emotional management, social negotiation, cooperation, and moral systems. (Kelley & Kelley, 2018).

Studies by Panksepp (1993) with rats found when young rats were deprived of rough play they showed developmental deficits in the prefrontal cortex which manifested in behaviors that are similar to ADD in human children. Human Male children have a natural proclivity to engage in robust and troublesome behavior. Interestingly the number of reported cases of ADD in human males are higher than that of their female counterparts. Dopaminergic agonists such as the widely prescribed drug Ritalin suppresses the ‘play’ function in the brain. One of the first pharmacological studies using play as a measure showed that low doses of psychomotor stimulants such as amphetamine and methylphenidate are very potent in reducing play (Beatty et al, 1982). Nature in all its wisdom has designed the brains of mammals to experience a chemical reward for rough and tumble play and (Panksepp 1993) states that Dopamine utilization increases during play bouts. Therefore, this type of father son relationship is important from a biological perspective.

There has been much misinformation and ‘problematization’ around fathers influences on their male children. Recently a 2018 document released by the APA entitled ‘Guidelines for treatment of men and boys’, which partly depicts masculine traits to be harmful and damaging to not only males themselves but also wider society. The document ignores compelling evidence that the single biggest predictor for male criminality and antisocial behavior is paternal absenteeism. Physically aggressive behavior in early childhood is a risk factor for the development of chronic psychopathology later in life (Moffitt et al 1996). The presence of a masculine and authoritative father figure who is willing to interact with the child in rough play in a child’s life can protect children from these risks (Amato and Rezac, 1994). Documents such as ‘Guidelines for the treatment of men and boys’ only seek to inhibit further exploration of a topic which certainly needs to be explored and highlighted at government level with a view to intervention.

Several newspaper articles have also incorrectly highlighted rough housing as problematic. One in particular from Australia where Teacher and Author, Jayneen Sanders attempts to blur the lines of physical and sexual abuse with rough housing. The opening caption in an article published in the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun states “adults who play roughly with children should be closely watched to ensure they are not grooming the kids for abuse, a child safety expert says”. Also quoted in the same article is the Victorian Commissioner for Children and young people saying, “We should only engage in play where we know the child is safe, and being rough isn’t acceptable”. Conflicting agenda driven statements such as these (considering the amount of studies to the contrary), aim to further problematize a fathers role in a child’s development and continue to seek denial of human evolutionary biology in relation to behavior.

According to Bruner (1976), rough play provides a less risky situation than “real life,” thus minimizing the consequences of one’s actions. Aldis (1975) and Smith (2005) argue that play for practice initially evolved from immature agonistic behavior such as play fighting and pursuit-and-flight behavior, which had selective advantages for survival because individuals engaging in this play were better trained in survival behavior than were those without such practice. The evolutionary roots of beneficial rough play with dad are also discussed Allen and Rapee (2005). Risky play, we will argue, is a part of the normal process that adapts the child to its current environment through first developing normal adaptive fear to initially protect the child against ecological risk factors, and thereafter risky play as a fear reducing behavior where the child naturally performs exposure behavior.

In recent years there has been an over emphasis on safety at play. Many if not all modern playgrounds have been ‘rubberized’ in order to have minimal impact for children who fall during play activities. While it is important to minimize serious injury to playing children, minimizing the environmental challenges is also problematic. Stephenson (2003) states, If you make an environment hazard free it becomes challenge free, and then children have less experience in making decisions on their own, less opportunity to assess their own personal frontiers and less opportunity to gain confidence and self-esteem through coping independently. Consider how your child’s outdoor environment allows for and promotes risk taking? Over sanitized becomes dull. There is no room for growth inside a comfort zone.

Helen Bilton author of playing outside says physically the area has to be safe but still allow risk and challenge. Safeness is about enabling things to happen, not shutting down opportunities. There are similarities in these statements and the process behind rough play initiated by Fathers. Both see the value in the exploration of risk benefits to the child and are supported by numerous studies highlighting the benefits of either. A mother’s bond is established in infancy, and researchers believe that dad’s bond is expressed a little later, when the father serves as a secure base allowing the child to explore and take risks, says University of Georgia researcher Geoffrey Brown.

Fathers also have a profound influence on the development in a child’s language formation. In a study by the University of North Carolina in 2006 on families with two working parents, which videotaped playtime activities with their 2-year-old child it was discovered by Nadya Panscofar & Vernon-Feagans that the children whose fathers had broader and more diverse vocabulary ranges had scored better on language development tests a year later. Crucially the research uncovered that mother’s vocabulary had no significant influence on the language skills of the child. In a similar study in Finland, which is seen as a benchmark for recognizing the developmental and biological benefits of paternal influence. The researchers found after controlling for family demographics, child characteristics, as well as mother education and vocabulary, father education and father vocabulary during the picture-book task were related to more advanced language development at both 15 and 36 months of age (Lankinen et al 2018). It is important to note that authors of both studies recognize the importance of including fathers in further studies also highlight the need for further research on the topic.

Perhaps because so much is known about the ways in which mothers contribute to children’s early communication and oral language development, early childhood programs and intervention services generally focus their family involvement efforts on mothers (Brookes-Gunn, Berlin, & Fuligni, 2000; Turbiville & Marquis, 2001). This study supports such research with evidence that fathers are important figures in the ecology of young children living in two-parent households, across SES and racial groups. Education and intervention efforts to improve child language development should expand their focus to better include fathers of young children. (Panscofar, Vernon-Feagans 2010).

Children without fathers are twice as likely to be obese (National Longitudinal survey of youth) and research by Davison et al (2018) has shown that a child is 10 times more likely to be overweight if a father is overweight than if only the mother is overweight. Yet alarmingly the role of Fathers in family based interventions to prevent childhood obesity has been virtually ignored. Prof. Jess Haines OF Harvard Chan School of public health states: Fathers seem to have a unique influence on kids and their dietary habits, and we will miss out on this if we don’t include them in our intervention work. Not only do Fathers have a direct influence on the child but also as part of a family unit. This role of fathers as part of a family unit has also been overlooked in terms of interventions in childhood obesity rates, yet there is sufficient evidence to warrant their implementation. In a longitudinal study on Family Structure and Childhood Obesity by Chen and Escarce (2010) finds children from single-mother families and, especially, children with no siblings are at higher risk for obesity than children living with 2 parents and children with siblings. The authors also state the importance of taking into account family structure when discussing childhood obesity interventions and strategies.


Longitudinal research over the past 20 years has identified clear paternal influences, particularly on the psychosocial adjustment of adolescents. Earlier paternal involvement predicts adult children’s feelings of satisfaction in spousal relationships and self-reported parenting skills (Bums & Dunlop, 1998; Franz, McClelland, & Weinberger, 1991).  Lewis, Newson, and Newson (1982) found that the reported involvement of British fathers in two-parent households at ages 7 and 11 predicted the child’s performance in national examinations at age 16 as well as whether or not they had a criminal record by age 21. Boys from single-parent families reported smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol more frequently than other youth. Similarly, youths from single-parent homes reported more aggressive and delinquent behavior than those from two-parent homes, and boys reported more aggression and delinquency than girls did. (Griffin et al 2000) Fathers’ involvement in school is associated with a higher likelihood of students getting mostly A’s. This is true for fathers in two-biological parent families, for stepfathers, and for fathers heading single-parent families. What is more interesting is there appears to be no association, however, between fathers’ involvement in stepmother families and the odds that students get mostly A’s. (Nord & West 2001)


Many of the benefits of strong relationships with Fathers at an early age have lifelong benefits and come to fruition when males reach adulthood. Across the lifespan, a strong relationship with his Father means a man less likely to live in poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 44% of children in mother-only families were living in poverty, compared to only 12% of children living in a household headed by a married couple. While it has been discussed at length earlier in the text the long-term benefits of roughhousing with Dad are also apparent right across both early and late Adulthood. According to the Grant Harvard longitudinal study (which is the longest study on men’s lives ever to have taken place) males whose fathers roughhoused with them have better adjustment to, and contentment with, life after retirement. They are also more resilient to stress and less likely to abuse drugs because of the gratification delay experienced because of rough play.

Mallers et al (2011) also discuss the long-term benefits of positive father son relationships at length in a more recent study. Men who reported having received higher quality father-child relationships during childhood reported less emotional reactivity to daily stressors as compared to men who reported having poorer father-child relationship quality. Of course, father son relationships are not a one-way street. In a similar study using part of the same sample (wave 1 of the Family Exchanges study) used by Mallers et al, Polenick et al 2016 found that father–child relationship quality has significant implications for the well-being of both aging fathers and middle-aged daughters or sons. Another predictor for well-being found across this study sample was that parents who had more than one highly successful adult child reported better well-being, but having even one problematic offspring hurt parents’ mental health. Having only one successful child, however, was not associated with better well-being. Alternatively, men who lacked a positive relationship with their fathers were also “much more likely to call themselves pessimists and to report having trouble letting others get close. (McKay & McKay 2014)

Marriage satisfaction in relation to fathers influence was also examined by the Grant Harvard longitudinal study, and showed it was not the men with poor mothering but the ones with poor fathering who were significantly more likely to have lower levels of  marriage quality over their lifetimes. There has been little change in the evidence for the consequences of poor relationships with fathers across time and social status.

Men’s recollections of their own childhood relationships show correlations with their paternal sensitivity; i.e. Researchers have shown that men who reported loving and secure relationships with their parents were more sensitive and involved than fathers with less positive memories (Cowan, Cohn, Cowan, & Pearson, 1996 p215). In addition, Braungart-Rieker et al (1999) found that fathers who were less sensitive to their four-month-old sons were more likely to become insecurely attached to their fathers than their mothers were.

Final thoughts

The links between ADD type conditions and the preventive benefits of rough housing need to be explored as a non-pharmacological intervention. Again, prevention is better than treatment afterwards. It is very easy to bring up the childhood ideals of a father son relationship and all of the benefits of them, but it equally as important to acknowledge those who did not enjoy the aforementioned fruits, yet still long now as a grown independent adult male to reconcile what has gone on in the past. Many men endure a repressed longing for reconciliation. This ‘phenomenon’ we will call it for want of a better word is littered throughout literature. Therefore, we cannot ignore it. In the poem My Fathers wedding by Robert Bly he summarizes his emotionally unavailable of father in a very short set of lines “He already had his bark-like skin then, made rough especially to repel the sympathy he longed for, didn’t need, and wouldn’t accept.” Affection and meeting needs is a two way street, and for fathers there seems to be a difficulty balancing between strength and emotion. It is also a very apparent message in movies and books, Pinocchio rescuing his father from the belly of the whale and Luke Skywalker trying to save his father while on his own journey in the film Star Wars. It is easier to prevent than repair…

Further reading.

Alio, A. P., Kornosky, J. L., Mbah, A. K., Marty, P. J., & Salihu, H. M. (2009). The Impact                 of Paternal Involvement on Feto-Infant Morbidity Among Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. Maternal and Child Health Journal,14(5), 735-741.  doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10995-009-0482-1

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018). APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/psychological-practice-boys-men-guidelines.pdf

Bilton, Helen. (2014). The Aims of Early Years Outdoor Education in England: A Conceptual and Empirical Investigation. International Journal of Education and Social Science. 1.

Bly, R. My Father’s Wedding. Retrieved March 24, 2019, from https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/my-fathers-wedding

Borchard, T. (2016). 6 Benefits of Roughhousing for Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 11, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/6-benefits-of-roughhousing-for-kids/

Brown, G. L., Mangelsdorf, S. C., & Neff, C. (2012). Father involvement, paternal sensitivity, and father−child attachment security in the first 3 years. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 421-430. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0027836

Chen, A. Y., & Escarce, J. J. (2010). Family structure and childhood obesity, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten Cohort. Preventing chronic disease7(3), A50.

Davison, K., Kitos, N., Aftosmes-Tobio, N., Ash, T. Agaronov, A., Sepulveda, M Haines, J. Corrigendum to “The forgotten parent: Fathers’ representation in family interventions to prevent childhood obesity” [Prev. Med. 111 (2018) 170–176]. Preventive Medicine, Volume 114, September 2018, Pages 232.


Flanders, J. L., Leo, V., Paquette, D., Pihl, R. O., & Séguin, J. R. (2009). Rough-and-tumble play and the regulation of aggression: an observational study of father-child play dyads. Aggressive behavior35(4), 285–295. doi:10.1002/ab.20309

Gambelin, A. (2019, February 19). Relax, mama: Dad’s roughhousing with your kids is good for them-really. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from https://www.mother.ly/child/the-science-benefits-of-roughhousing-with-your-kids-that-will-make-you-less-anxious

Griffin, K. W., Botvin, G. J., Scheier, L. M., Diaz, T., & Miller, N. L. (2000). Parenting practices as predictors of substance use, delinquency, and aggression among urban minority youth: moderating effects of family structure and gender. Psychology of addictive behaviors: journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 14(2), 174-84.

Kelley, Rafe and Kelley, Beth (2018) “Just Wrestle: How We Evolved Through Rough and Tumble Play,” Journal of Evolution and Health: Vol. 2: Iss. 3, Article 9. https://doi.org/10.15310/2334-3591.1073

Lamb, M. E., & Lewis, C. (2003). Fathers influences on children’s development: The evidence from two-parent families. European Journal of Psychology of Education,18(2), 211-228. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from http://local.psy.miami.edu/faculty/dmessinger/c_c/rsrcs/rdgs/emot/LewisLamb2003.dads.pdf

Lankinen, V.,  Lähteenmäki, M., Kaljonen, A., & Korpilahti, P., (2018) Father–child activities and paternal attitudes in early child language development: the STEPS study, Early Child Development and Care, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2018.1557160

Lewis, C., & Lamb, M. E. (2003). Fathers’ influences on children’s development: The evidence from two-parent families. European Journal of Psychology of Education, XVIII (No 2), 211228. Retrieved November 6, 2018.

Mallers, M. H., Charles, S. T., Neupert, S. D., & Almeida, D. M. (2010). Perceptions of childhood relationships with mother and father: daily emotional and stressor experiences in adulthood. Developmental psychology46(6), 1651–1661. doi:10.1037/a0021020


McKay, B., & McKay, K. (2018, December 20). The Influence of Fathers on Children. Retrieved January 06, 2019, from https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/the-importance-of-fathers-according-to-science/

Nord, C.W. and West, J. (2001) Fathers’ and Mothers’ Involvement in Their Children’s Schools by Family Type and Resident Status, U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics NCES Washington, DC, 2001–032

Novetney, A. (2010, October). The power of Dad, How parent-child relationships are key to well-being. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/10/dad

O Brien, S. (2019). Rough play with adults ‘grooms kids for abuse’. [online] Heraldsun.com.au. Available at: https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/play-it-safe-with-roughhousing-child-safety-expert-warns/news-story/875f8a01e4f18f7580750cf600cb2834 [Accessed 14 Mar. 2019].

Panscofar, N., & Vernon-Feagans, L. (2006). Mother and father language input to young children: Contributions to later language development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology,27(6), 571-587. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2006.08.003

Panscofar, N., Vernon-Feagans, L., & The Family Life Project Investigators (2010). Fathers’ Early Contributions to Children’s Language Development in Families from Low-income Rural Communities. Early childhood research quarterly25(4), 450–463. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.02.001

Polenick, C.A., DePasquale, N., Eggebeen, D.J., Zarit, S.H., Fingerman, K.L., Relationship Quality between Older Fathers and Middle-Aged Children: Associations With Both Parties’ Subjective Well-Being, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 73, Issue 7, October 2018, Pages 1203–1213, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbw094

Sandseter, E. B., & Kennair, L. E. (2011). Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences. Evolutionary Psychology,9(2), 147470491100900. doi:10.1177/147470491100900212

Staff, S. X. (2018, April 10). Fathers missing in childhood obesity interventions, study finds. Retrieved from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-04-fathers-childhood-obesity-interventions.html

Stephenson, A. (2003) Physical Risk-taking: Dangerous or endangered?, Early Years, 23:1, 35-43, DOI: 10.1080/0957514032000045573

Sivey, S. M., Deron, L. M., & Kasten, C. R. (2011). Serotonin, motivation, and playfulness in the juvenile rat [Abstract]. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 1(4), 606-616. Retrieved November 10, 2018.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2006, November 1). Fathers Influence Child Language Development More Than Mothers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 29, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/10/061030183039.htm

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