Father Is Best

Posted: Jun 16, 2006 5:47 PM

Fatherhood has been transforming. Fifty years ago, a father tended to be perceived primarily as a provider. Lately, he is urged to be more nurturing so he can become a rougher version of mommy. There is something to be said for both of these visions. Dad is still usually the breadwinner, and the more involved he is in his children's lives, the better.

But both conceptions sell fatherhood short. As a new report from the Institute for American Values attests, the father is protector and disciplinarian. His effect on his household isn't only material or emotional, but biological. He is not just another male — in fact, having any other male in the household instead of him can be problematic. The key to unlocking the benefits of fatherhood is marriage. It changes the father, and his presence in the household changes those around him. The social science is documenting how we can't just shuffle around gender and parental roles without consequence, because then we are disturbing deep forces that have always been best harnessed by traditional marriage.

Boys in a single-parent home are roughly twice as likely to have served jail time by their early 30s. They are missing a family's natural disciplinarian. As the report's main author, University of Virginia professor W. Bradford Wilcox, puts it, "Men have a disciplinary advantage over women in terms of their size, strength and even the tone of their voice." This advantage extends to the entire community. The research of Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson finds that the percentage of fatherless households is one of the strongest predictors of how much violent crime a neighborhood will experience.

Having a male, any male, in the household is not an adequate replacement. White and Hispanic teens living in households with a co-habiting couple actually have more behavioral problems than teens in single-parent households. That's because, the report notes, co-habiting households "are usually led by their mother and an unrelated male. Boyfriends are more likely to be abusive than a married father. They are also more likely to compete with the child for the attention of the mother."

Indeed, children living with single mothers, mothers' boyfriends or stepfathers are at a much greater risk of abuse. As Wilcox explains, "Men who have a biological or adoptive tie to their children from an early age are more likely to regulate their attraction to the child and their emotional reactions when the child acts out."

In marriage, there is much more going on than meets the eye. According to the report, men who have never married or are divorced have higher levels of testosterone than do married men, particularly married fathers. Since testosterone is associated with risk-taking and anti-social behavior, this makes the married man more civilized and dependable.

If marriage influences the biology of the father, he, in turn, influences the biology of his daughters. Girls in intact married households experience puberty later than girls in single-parent households. This is important, Wilcox notes, "because when girls develop prematurely, they are more likely to become attracted to older boys and men and to have sex and become pregnant at an early age."

If a girl lives with an unrelated male (say, a stepfather or a mother's boyfriend), she hits puberty even earlier than a girl living with only her mother. The speculation is that the father emits pheromones — biological chemicals communicating sexual signals — that delay puberty in his daughter, while an unrelated male emits pheromones that accelerate it. If so, there is nothing to be done about this phenomenon, since no one consciously controls his pheromones.

Perhaps dad would be dispensable if government could somehow cushion children against his absence? It can't. Sweden has an all-enveloping welfare state and system of socialized medicine, but even there the report says, "Boys reared in single-parent homes were more than 50 percent more likely to die from a range of causes — such as suicide, accidents or addiction — than were boys reared in two-parent homes." There's just no substitute for dad.