Uniquely Dad – The Science Behind Fatherhood

In Fatherhood 101 by Engagement


Baby Asleep On His Father'S Chest.Historically, psychologists and other researchers assumed that the mother-child bond was the most important one in a child’s life. They focused on studying those relationships, and tended to attribute children’s outcomes – whether positive or negative – to mothers. However, within the last several decades, scientists are increasingly realizing how much dads matter.  Just like women, fathers’ bodies respond to parenthood, and their parenting style affects their kids equally, and sometimes more, than moms’.

Dad’s distinctive contribution

Ronald Rohner, the director of the Centre for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut , and his colleagues recently reviewed decades of studies on parental acceptance and rejection across the globe. Unsurprisingly, parents have a major effect on their kids. When kids feel rejected or unloved by mom and dad, they are more likely to become hostile, aggressive and emotionally unstable. Parental rejection also can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and negative worldviews in children.

Overall, it appears that the love or rejection of mothers and fathers equally affects kids’ behaviour, self-esteem, emotional stability, and mental health. However, it is notable that in some cases, a father’s love is a stronger influence for children than a mother’s. According to Rohner, knowing that kids feel loved by their father is a better predictor of young adults’ sense of well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction than knowing about the extent to which they feel loved by their mothers.

Rohner and his colleagues suggest that every family has a member with more influence and prestige — the person who might set the weekend plans, for example. In families where dad takes on such a role, his actions might make the greatest impression on the children. In those cases, “kids tend to pay more attention to what dad does and dad says than mom, and he’s going to have more influence,” Rohner said.

Dads tend to lay down firmer discipline than moms (Wilcox, 2013). Although mothers discipline children more, because they spend more time with kids, their strategies tend to allow for more negotiation and bent rules. Wilcox emphasizes that neither strategy is better or worse, but it benefits kids to be exposed to both.

Dads appear to be responsible for endowing their kids with endurance, a trait that serves them well in life (Padilla-Walker, 2012). In a study of two-parent families published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, Brigham Young University researchers found that dad’s parenting style is more closely linked to whether teens will exhibit persistence than mom’s parenting. A persistent personality was in turn related to less delinquency and more engagement in school over time (Padilla-Walker, 2012). The parenting style that is related to persistence in kids is called authoritative parenting, a style characterized by warmth and love, accountability to the rules (but explanations of why those rules exist), and age-appropriate autonomy for kids.

Fathers who are most effective are those who listen to their children, have a close relationship, set appropriate rules, but also grant appropriate freedoms (Padilla-Walker, 2012).  It is not clear why dads might be more important than moms in teaching perseverance, but it is possible that fathers simply focus on this trait more, while moms teach other traits such as gratitude and kindness (Padilla-Walker, 2012).

Dads also influence their children through the way they play with them (Wilcox, 2013). Compared to mums, dads are more likely to roughhouse — 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. These characteristics influence children’s ambitions over the long run.

Finally, a strong relationship with dads protects kids from risky behaviour (Wilcox, 2013). Children with involved fathers are less likely to become victims of sexual assault or abuse. A good relationship with dad can also influence a child’s sexual behaviour. Teens close to their fathers start having sex later, on average, an October 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found. Teens also appear to listen to their dads:  fathers who approved of early sexual activity were more likely to have sexually active teens compared with dads who disapproved.

The impact of fathering on Dads – Hormones and brain chemistry

As much as dads impact their children, parenting also significantly influences dads. There is also growing evidence that men’s physiology can respond to involved parenthood – something that was long thought to be limited to women.

Cortisol levels spike
Levels of the stress hormone called “cortisol” (behind the ancient “fight or flight” response) spikes about 4 to 6 weeks after men learn they’re going to be dads. This puts a man’s brain on alert and warns him that needs to start preparing for some major changes. His cortisol levels will even out again as the mother’s pregnancy progresses.

Testosterone levels fall
The “macho” hormone associated with competitiveness, aggression, and sex drive drops by roughly a third about 3 weeks before the birth of the baby, according to research published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some scientists believe this redirects a man’s focus from procreating to caretaking – dads with lower levels of testosterone are more sympathetic to their babies and more motivated to respond to them caringly. The more involved a dad is with his baby’s care, the greater the change in hormonal levels.

Prolactin levels rise
Interestingly, a man’s supply of the hormone prolactin, which aids a mother to produce milk, rises by 20%. Research suggests that prolactin is involved in nurturing and bonding and also seems to influence a new father’s responsiveness to his baby’s cries. Before fatherhood, women are much better than men at hearing babies cry and responding to them, but after fatherhood, the gap between genders closes.

Oxytocin levels increase
Hormonal studies have revealed that dads show increased levels of oxytocin during the first weeks of their babies’ lives. This hormone, sometimes called the “love hormone”, increases feelings of bonding among groups. Dads’ oxytocin levels are boosted by playing with their babies, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Brain is activated
Other parts of a man’s brain are used more after fatherhood. Men who are fathers show dramatically different brain responses in regions, such as the amygdala and the supraoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus. Activation of these parts of the brain adds up to increased motivation, attention, problem-solving and emotional processing for men, which could enhance their performance in other domains such as work.


The bottom line is that both moms and dads have unique built-in qualities and complementary psychological as well as physiological responses to nurturing children. Involved fathering is a win-win situation for all concerned. The more dads engage with their children, the more likely their children are to flourish in domains that mothers have traditionally exerted less influence on. Both parts of the parent team contribute significantly to the overall development of a child.

Dads matter, and the time they spend and little that they do with their children go a long way.

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Kuchinskas, S. (2009). Benefits of the daddy brain. Pacific Standard: The Science of Society.

Laney, P. How a man’s chemistry is changed after becoming a dad. Peace in Your Home: An Online Parenting Community.

Messinger, E. The health benefits of fatherhood. Parents Magazine.

Moore, A. (2012). A man’s body also undergoes biological changes during parenthood. Medical Daily.

Pappas, S. (2012). The science of fatherhood: why dads matter. Huffington Post.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.