Children Need Both Mom And Dad To Thrive, Studies Suggest

Armin Brott stood in the kitchen of his friend's house watching the scene unfold, his reaction a mix of amusement and horror.

Brott's friend, a father of three who worked long hours and was rarely home with his kids, was at the stove, making scrambled eggs. The mother stood across the room, watching her husband cook. It was clear, Brott remembers, she didn't like what she saw. The dad wasn't making the eggs "the right way, the way the kids liked them."

"Before he could finish, she was all over him," says Brott. "In her eyes, his way wasn't just different, it was altogether wrong."

Fathers of the '90s are suffering from "the other glass ceiling," says Brott, the San Francisco Bay Area father of two daughters and author of "The Expectant Father, Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be" (Abbeville Press, $9.95).

Women may be inhibited in the workplace, he says, but fathers have a similar problem at home.

"We still have these very conflicting ideas," he says. "When I was a kid, my father was supposed to go out and work and he was called a good father. In retrospect, he was not a good father. Nowadays, we're also supposed to take care of the kids. But we're not welcomed in that role."

Who's at risk

In a society where the absence of fathers has become a given for almost half of all kids, social scientists are discovering that boys and girls who grow up daddy-less suffer greatly. Whether it is the result of abandonment, divorce, business trips or excessively long hours at the office, the impact on the children is the same. The only time Dad's absence is not so sociologically damaging is when the father has died, a situation that creates a different set of problems.

In short, research shows, children thrive when they have a mother and a father at home.

Statistically, kids without a dad are more likely to be unhappy and to lead a troubled life. Of course, such a statement is bad news to single mothers, many of whom have no choice but to raise their children alone. But even another consistent relationship with a caring, responsible adult male who is a friend or relative can go a long way toward helping a child develop.

"If you look at any measure of child well-being, you see that kids are placed at great risk when they grow up (without) their fathers," says psychologist Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a new organization promoting fathers' rights and responsible fatherhood.

"Over the last three decades we have engaged in a great social experiment to determine what will happen if large numbers of children are reared without their fathers. And the conclusion is children suffer greatly."

Why fathers are important

There are many reasons children need their fathers, say Horn and his colleagues. Fathers provide a different kind of parenting than mothers, form unique bonds with their children and help their sons and daughters develop in important ways only recently understood and recognized. The "wallet mentality" that refers to fathers as breadwinners and nothing more is dangerously narrow.

One of the biggest misconceptions about fathers, says Jerrold Shapiro, a Los Altos, Calif., psychologist and professor at Santa Clara University, is that they should try to be second mothers or substitute mommies. Fathers have their own way of being with their children, he observes, and it is good and valuable in its differences.

For Susan Bernadett-Shapiro, Shapiro's wife, the belief that an involved father is instrumental in the development of healthy kids comes from personal and professional experience. In her research as a therapist and professor at College of Notre Dame in Belmont, Calif., Bernadett-Shapiro has learned that boys whose fathers actively participate in their kid's upbringing develop a greater sense of empathy. As a mother, she knows the value of her husband's presence for the entire family.

"Sharing the parenting allows for some real understanding and intimacy between the spouses," she says.

Beyond the good effects this has on the marriage, says Bernadett-Shapiro, it fosters positive qualities in the children.

"My daughter (13) is very close to her father and he supports her in a way that gives her confidence and makes her feel like she can take risks." As an example, she points out, Tasha was the first girl ever to try out - and make it - on her school's previously all-male wrestling team. She seems equally comfortable with her feminine and adventurous sides.

Filling different roles

Not only are a father's natural instincts good, but they provide an important balance and complement to the mother's approach.

"Mothers have an emotional umbilical cord that guides them," says Jerrold Shapiro, who has a private, largely male practice. From the way the mother holds a newborn to the way she plays with her school-age children, her style is almost always nurturing and protective.

When a woman picks up an infant, for example, she automatically rolls the baby toward her breast, cuddling it away from the outside world. Men, on the other hand, are much more likely to put a baby over their shoulder or hold it so that it faces out and can observe what is going on.

Even at play, differences are evident. Mothers let the child lead the way, says Shapiro. "Dads play with kids by saying, `Hand me the socket wrench, no not the ratchet.' Kids do what dad is doing."

While Shapiro knows he risks being labeled a sexist for his observations - and he is quick to say none of them are absolute - his findings echo those of other researchers who have come to the same conclusions that a father's influence encourages independence and risk-taking, while a mother fosters intimacy, nurturing and sharing feelings.

As children grow, the effects of fatherlessness become more acute. Girls with no dad are far more likely to have trouble forging healthy relationships with men in their adult lives.

A father is the first man with whom little girls experience love, and the model they use in later life to define their expectations for a long-term partner. A result of absent fathers is early promiscuous sexual activity.

For boys, growing up without a dad manifests itself in different but equally pronounced ways. Boys learn to keep their aggressive impulses in check through the observation of a male figure in the home who regularly controls himself, reports Horn.

"It is through a boy's observation of the way his father deals with frustration, anger and sadness that boys learn how men cope with such emotions. It is also through a boy's observation of the way his father treats the boy's mother that he learns how to treat women."

"Lucky is the child who has both," says David Blankenhorn, author of "A fatherless America."

While his views of fatherhood and family structure are controversial, much of Blankenhorn's description of a fatherless society mirrors the theory of mainstream researchers.

"Infants look to their mothers as soothing and comforting," says Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. "Fathers are exciting, stimulating and playful. Some psychologists describe the father as the first stranger after `my mother/me' that children encounter," notes Blankenhorn. "Studies show that children with fathers are more comfortable around strangers later in life."

When the mother is the primary caretaker, she usually caters to the immediate needs of the child - "how are you feeling today?" or "what can I do for you right now? Fathers are more apt to take a futuristic perspective, teaching life's lessons so that their son or daughter can "do better in life."

But for every generalization, there are exceptions, and parenting styles are no more set in stone than other aspects of human interaction. The bottom line, agree psychologists and researchers, is that the mother/father partnership - barring stormy relationships - has value for children. And when both parents are closely involved in raising their offspring, the children benefit.

Involved fatherhood seems to be as much about opportunity as it is about desire. When a father is welcome and included, he is more likely to stick around, psychologist Shapiro says he hears over and over from his male patients. Too often mothers exclude fathers, enabling them to retreat to the garage or the office.

"I tell moms, `If you want the father deeply involved with your children there's only one way to do it,"' says Shapiro. "That's get out of the house and let him take over."