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3 Ways Fathers Shape Their Kids
When it comes to parenting, moms tend to get more of the spotlight. But science confirms that dads have just as much impact, influencing the personality, mental and physical health and behaviors of their offspring for better and for worse.
It happens in a multitude of ways — some subtle, some dramatic. Among them:
Even before you were born, what your dad did with his life — and what life did to him — was shaping you. It can even play a role in shaping descendants he’ll never meet.
That’s because the stress he felt, the food he ate, the alcohol he consumed, everything about his lifestyle and environment, can affect the way genes function. And those changes in genetic programming can be passed down through the generations.
A recent Georgetown University Medical Center study gathered the evidence from the available human and animal studies looking at the link between fathers and what is called heritable epigenetic programming. It showed, among the results, that the psychosocial stress felt by a father has been linked to defective behavioral traits in his offspring, and paternal obesity has links to obesity, diabetes and cancer in his young.
Alcohol use can also have a major impact, reducing a child’s birth weight, brain size and cognitive function. It can also lead to a diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in a newborn, even if the mother has never had a drink.
“Up to 75% of children with FASD have biological fathers who are alcoholics, suggesting that preconceptual paternal alcohol consumption negatively impacts their offspring,” explained Joanna Kitlinska, PhD, the study’s senior investigator, in a statement upon the release of their research.
It all boils down to this: Well before you are called Dad, what you do matters.
By Being Hands-On
It doesn’t matter if your father is rich or poor or even living with you or not, if he’s engaged positively in your life and in your upbringing, you’re the better for it.
A long-term Concordia University study of children and their parents published in 2011 concluded that fathers who were hands-on, setting appropriate limits and influencing reactions, play an important role in the development of their child’s well-being, intellect and behavior.
“Compared with other children with absentee dads, kids whose fathers were active parents in early and middle childhood had fewer behavior problems and higher intellectual abilities as they grew older — even among socio-economically at-risk families,” explained study co-author and PhD candidate Erin Pougnet in a university statement. They are also less likely to struggle with emotional problems such as social withdrawal, anxiety and sadness.
It’s far from the only study to document good things between an engaged dad and his offspring. In 2012, researchers found that children whose fathers interacted with them at three months were less likely to have behavioral problems at one year.
It’s not that children are doomed to fare poorly if Dad isn’t around. Mothers and other caregivers also matter, of course, and many kids do just fine without a father in their lives, the research emphasizes. But there’s no doubt that a hands-on dad can be a powerful force for good.
By How Much They Love Them
No surprise here. The love that a parent shows a child is crucial to his or her development. What has been surprising to researchers, however, is that Dad’s love can have just as big an impact as Mom’s, and sometimes more.
Sadly, that impact is strongest when love is withheld. In fact, a large-scale analysis of the effects of parental affection determined that there’s no bigger influencer on personality than being rejected by a parent as a child. And if that rejection comes from the father, it often packs a greater punch. That’s thought to be because the father is often perceived as wielding the greatest power in the family dynamic.
The pain of that rejection, especially if it is ongoing, brings anxiety and insecurity and can cause the child to respond to others with hostility and aggression. It also almost guarantees that when the child grows up, he or she will find it tougher to form secure and loving relationships.
The researchers hope the information will motivate fathers to become more involved and nurturing parents, and to recognize just how much influence they have to either drag their children down in life or lift them up.