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The Science of Dad: Engaged Fathers Help Kids Flourish

By Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer

Despite the fact that men are increasingly involved in family life, stereotypes about dad still persist: He's bumbling. He's immature. He's never seen a dirty diaper he'd volunteer to change.

Yeah, right.

Research is increasingly revealing that dads make a big difference in their kids' lives — and (surprise, surprise), they're perfectly capable of being competent parents. For example, dads can recognize their baby's cries as well as moms, and in some cases, a father-child relationship can influence that kid's life to a greater extent than the mother-child bond.

"Given the rising role of women as breadwinners in a large minority of families, it's important to realize that men bring more than money to the parenting enterprise," said W. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies marriage and families. [History's 12 Most Doting Dads]

The involved dad

The bumbling dad stereotype is a favorite caricature for marketers. In March 2012, the diaper brand Huggies ran an ad campaign that called alone time with dad "the ultimate test" for their diapers — a phrasing taken to mean that fathers were too dumb to handle diaper changing. The brand quickly learned that modern dads don't take kindly to such implications. After an outcry and an online petition, Huggies pulled the ads and altered them to be more dad-friendly.

The incident illustrates how fatherhood, like motherhood, has changed with time. Mothers still take on a disproportionate amount of child care and household tasks compared with dads, but fathers are catching up. As of 2011, fathers spent seven hours a week on child care and 10 hours a week on housework, according to the Pew Research Center. That's approximately half of what mothers do, but it's a huge leap from 1965, when dads did only two-and-a-half hours a week of child care and four hours of housework.   ...more

A father's touch

Dads influence their kids' lives particularly strongly in four areas, Wilcox, who co-edited the book "Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives" (Columbia University Press, 2013), told LiveScience. One is how they play with their kids: Dads are more likely to roughhouse than moms, a style of play that helps teach kids to control their bodies and emotions. Fathers are also more likely to encourage their kids to embrace risk, both on the playground and in life. This influences the ambitions of children over the long run. Dads who believe in gender equality, for example, are more likely than dads with sexist beliefs to have daughters with high career ambitions, according to research presented at the 2013 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January. In fact, dads' gender beliefs were more influential on their daughters than moms' beliefs.

A strong relationship with dads protects kids, too, Wilcox said. Children with involved fathers are less likely to become victims of sexual assault or abuse. ...more

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