• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 20th February, 2008

A man is worth more than his genes - but how much more?

When it comes to parenting, mothers get much of the blame as well as the glory. The research tends to focus on them, and in most fictional and non-fictional accounts of child rearing, they have played the leading role. But what of fathers? Do they contribute more than their genes do to their children?The answer is yes, according to a team of Swedish researchers who reviewed results from 24 published reports of studies conducted between 1987 and 2007. The systematic trawl led by Anna Sarkadi at Uppsala University suggests that children who are actively and regularly engaged with their fathers tend to do better than those who are not, and that different types of children tend to benefit in different ways. Boys who were engaged with their fathers were less likely to have behavior problems; girls tended to have fewer psychological problems as they grew older. Additionally, in lower income families, the involvement of fathers appeared to prevent delinquency among their children.The studies the Swedish team examined tracked the progress of families over a number of years and considered whether earlier engagement predicted later benefits. Most of the studies considered the contribution made by “father figures” (such as stepfathers) as well as biological fathers – and found little to distinguish one from the other, suggesting that dads generally contribute more than their genes to the relationship. Most of the studies took into account the income level of the families they surveyed. So the researchers were able to rule out the possibility that fathers who stick around help their children out mainly by improving the economic situation of the family.A number of important questions were left unanswered, however. For example, it’s not clear what types of interaction with father most help children. Nor is it clear what distinguishes the contribution made by the father from that of a father figure. Perhaps just having another trusted adult, besides a mother, is beneficial for children. Despite such limitations, the authors claim that their work confirms the importance of public policies that encourage fathers to become or to stay engaged with their children. “Unfortunately current institutional policies in most countries do not support the increased involvement of fathers in child rearing,” Anna Sarkadi notes in a Eureka Alert article on the review. “Paid parental leave for fathers and employers sympathetic to fathers staying at home with sick children is still a dream in most countries.”• Summary of “Fathers' involvement and children's developmental outcomes: A systematic review of longitudinal studies” by: Anna Sarkadi, Robert Kristiansson, Frank Oberklaid, and Sven Bremberg in Acta Paediatrica, February 2008, Vol. 97 Issue 2, pp153-158.

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