This week marks Father’s Day, which, let’s be honest, is totally a second pickle holiday at Hallmark. According to the National Retail Federation, we spent $19.9 billion on gifts, flowers, and cards for Mother’s Day in 2014. That same year, we only spent $12.5 billion on Dad. And 41% of it was on ties (or possibly other articles of clothing, but who are we kidding, it was ties).
So why all the love for Mom and just a whole bunch of silk nooses for Dad?
Well, for one thing, suggests Pew Social Trends, dads spend an average of 7.3 hours on child care each week while mothers spend 13.5 hours doing the same. At least part of this is attributable to the fact that fathers work nearly twice as many paying hours in a week than do mothers. But still, take a note dads. If you’re wondering why Mom always gets better swag on her special day, consider that this unequal division of labor is probably a factor.
I’m kidding, of course. Father’s Day is about more than gifts. It’s about love, respect, standing up straight, having a firm handshake, looking people in the eye and all those other dad type things. And of course, it’s about gratitude for everything he sacrificed, for everything he gave unconditionally, for everything he taught you, and for everything you learned because of his example.
And when it comes to learning, there’s a lot to be grateful for. In fact, dads deserve a lot more credit than they get, according to a growing body of research. Turns out that of the many factors that can predict a child’s educational success, few rank as high as a father’s presence.
According to the Fatherhood Institute, a father’s interest in his child’s education has been found to have a more direct impact on educational outcomes than family background, poverty, or even the child’s personality. The Institute reports that children whose fathers are active participants in their education are likely to perform better on exams, achieve higher levels of educational qualification, and to harbor a generally more positive outlook on school.
A study in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, surveying 1250 fathers, found that children whose fathers are largely present for meals, leisure time, and homework fare significantly better in academics than those whose fathers are not an active part of these formative experiences.
The U.S. Department of Education says that children whose fathers are directly involved in their schooling are likelier to participate in extra-curricular activities and succeed academically, and are less likely to be expelled or to repeat a grade.
The Department goes on to note that roughly half of all students whose fathers are highly involved in their education earn mostly “A”s in school. The same is true for only one-third of students whose fathers have low or nonexistent involvement in their schooling.
The National Center for Fathering also points out that fatherly involvement can be a strong predictor of classroom discipline and, in the longterm, a lower propensity toward criminality and substance abuse.
Babysitting or Parenting?
So how are modern dads doing when it comes to meeting their educational responsibilities?
Well, by and large, dads are getting a soft C+ for attendance and a solid D for effort. According to the National Center for Fathering, as of 2009, 32% of American fathers never once visited their child’s classroom and 54% never volunteered at school.
Fortunately, if we measure by improvement, today’s dads are making a better showing than dads just a few years their senior. Between 1999 and 2009, says the National Center for Fathering, fatherly presence rose in nearly every aspect of student life. The percentage of fathers:
- taking their children to school has risen from 38% to 41%;
- attending class events, 28% to 35%;
- visiting the classroom, 30% to 41%;
- volunteering at school, 20% to 28%;
- attending parent-teacher conferences, 69% to 77%;
- attending school meetings, 28% to 35%;
- attending school-based parents’ meetings, 47% to 59%.
And in the grander scheme, the amount of time that men spend fathering has roughly tripled since 1965, suggesting some pretty profound changes in our gendering of parent roles over the last few decades. The social stigmas that once might have prevented Mom from pursuing a career, or discouraged Dad from taking the lead during parent-teacher conferences, are fading into obscurity.
True, fathers still work more hours. True, moms still spend more time at home. But the once boldfaced line of demarcation between these gendered parenting roles is getting lighter and less impenetrable all the time.
Not only is a man’s masculinity no longer subject to scrutiny when he dons a spit-up bib, an apron, or a PTA meeting name-tag, but increasingly, expectations of his masculinity hinge on these behaviors.
Did you ever hear the one about the father enjoying a sunny afternoon in the park with his baby? A well-meaning older lady approaches him, pinches the child’s cheek without permission, and asks the baby (as if the baby’s going to answer), “Is Daddy babysitting you today?”
Of course, those of us living in the 21st century know the answer to this one. He’s not babysitting. He’s parenting.
Sorry if my setup made it seem like that would be a punchline. It’s not. It’s just a reality. Dads these days are doing a whole lot more of what you might call “parenting.”
And yet, this assumption remains culturally ingrained. When we see Dad wheeling a stroller, herding his litter through the grocery store, or enduring the awkward and unhygienic rigamarole of going potty in a public space, we assume that he’s just on duty for the afternoon. He’s just picking up the slack, filling in for the first-stringer, probably heading back to the office tomorrow.
Sure, it’s entertaining to cast Dad as an overburdened bumbler; burning frozen dinners, shrinking sweaters and unwittingly dressing his kids like a Cyndi Lauper tribute act, all while Mom is away on business. That was basically the premise behind one out of every three movies in the 1980s.
But this premise is outdated and, like a lot of things from the ‘80s, possibly even destructive. This clunky stereotype obscures the profound impact of dads who show up, who take an interest, who are an active part of the educational and personal development of their children. Developmental researchers are coming increasingly to recognize that dads who parent, as opposed to those who merely babysit (or less), can have a measurable and positive effect on how their children learn, grow, and perform in school.
Today, the cultural assumption is that a real man doesn’t babysit his children. He parents them.
Why Is Dad So Important?
Granted, many children will grow up without a positive paternal presence, and many a single mother will undertake the heroic task of raising and nurturing happy, healthy, and well-adjusted human beings without the help of a father. This is an achievement worthy of admiration, and perhaps because the scenario is so commonplace, we are often hesitant to place too much emphasis on the role that fathers might play in the educational success of their children. To an extent, we do this to avoid undermining the achievements of households without a father.
This is fair. Many families and children succeed and strive without fathers. Single mothers and female same-sex marriages are every bit as capable of providing their children with a positive, engaged, and robust environment for learning. But for those families who do have fathers, the opportunity to make a positive impact is absolutely enormous.
And this is an opportunity that transcends educational attainment, tax bracket, or geography. In fact, fatherly presence can often be a game-changer for children who are otherwise in at-risk demographics. For instance, a study published in Families in Society surveyed 29 fathers of successful African-American males. The study observed fathering practices that researchers believed to be essential to the success of their participants: child-focused love, discipline, high-expectations, open communication, positive racial and male gender identification, and a willingness to draw from community resources.
These characteristics underscore the opportunity that educationally-invested fathers have to actively resist the patterns of risk facing specific demographics by simply being the presence their children need.
Both for children who fall into at-risk categories and for those who have all the advantages in the world, there is another tangible benefit that Dad brings to the table. According to an article by The Atlantic, the way that dads engage physically with their children is typically different than Mom’s approach.
If your dad is anything like mine, he’s kind of just a big kid with kids of his own. Dads like to play. Dads like to roughhouse. Dads often fully understand, and sometimes sympathize with, the impulses that their children have to climb on things, throw things and, yes, to destroy things.
The Atlantic points out that Dad’s style of play is often more unpredictable, more challenging, and even a little riskier. These qualities, in turn, teach children to challenge their own expectations, to take risks, and to strive for independence. Children who roughhouse with their dads also learn very quickly that there are rules of contact, that you don’t bite or kick below the belt. And most evidence suggests that children who have these formative experiences in their background are at an advantage when it comes to social interaction, group participation, and team activities.
These findings are independent of race, wealth, or educational attainment. Granted, all of those variables qualities may figure into the availability and presence of fathers. But where fathers are present, available, and devoted, these otherwise seemingly overwhelming variables can be mitigated.
Greeting Cards and Gratitude
The lesson in all of this is that Dad is second pickle to nobody when it comes to education. Just like Mom, he is in a position to make a profound impact on the way his kids learn, grow and ultimately succeed.
Of course, balancing work and home life is a real challenge for many fathers. Fortunately, the Fatherhood Institute offers an array of resources advising on how to be a better, more active and more present father. Recommendations vary considerably depending on one’s life, family and work circumstances. But at the heart of the matter is a willingness to make the time, to be a meaningful part of a child’s emotional, educational, and psychological upbringing, to be more than a mere babysitter.
And to all the dedicated dads out there, know that you make an enormous difference and you deserve a whole lot more than a tie this Father’s Day.
Tell us about your dad and how he helped you to learn, succeed, and grow into the person you are today.