Dads are crucial. We’ve known this for a long time. For example, former president Barack Obama, despite advancing many policies that undermined the family, remained an outspoken voice on the importance of loving, involved fathers. According to all the evidence, he was partly correct. Kids need their fathers, but do best when their fathers are married to their mothers.
The ‘Good Father Effect’
Earlier this month in The Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Breheny Wallace surveyed the overwhelming and decades-long scientific consensus that fathers and fatherly love are irreplaceable in the lives of children. For example, a 2021 study from the Journal of Family Psychology found that warm and caring dads predict better mental health outcomes for children. Both boys and girls with such fathers experience “fewer weight concerns, higher self-esteem and fewer depression symptoms.”
The connection between physically present, emotionally available fathers and mentally healthy kids is so strong that researchers have termed it the “good father effect.” A recent review published in the journal Children surveyed nearly four dozen studies on the father-child relationship. In Wallace’s words, these studies conclude that,
Fathers who were involved in caregiving and play, and who reacted with warmth and greater sensitivity to a child who expressed emotions, were significantly more likely to have children with better emotional balance from infancy to adolescence.
Such emotional stability in turn predicted “higher levels of social competence, peer relationships, academic achievement, and resilience” among kids.
The Push for ‘Alternatives’ to the Family
If it is indeed true, as all the evidence shows, that a dad’s love has such incredible power to set children on a healthy trajectory, why are our laws, our culture, and so many of the movements that shape both, so intent on denying the need for fathers? The redefinition of marriage, the rise of in vitro fertilization and surrogacy for same-sex couples, the embrace of gender ideology that treats men and women as interchangeable, and especially the acceptance of unmarried parenthood, all ignore or reject the centrality of a father and mother committed to one another and to their children for life. In fact, there have never been more people or resources so invested in “alternatives” to the family.
What drives these alternatives has never been the lack of evidence, but an unwavering commitment to sexual autonomy and an unwillingness to submit our lives, our sexuality, and our moral choices to God’s design for the family. Which means the evidence will continue to accumulate, specifically of the immense destruction our collective choices wreak on the lives of children who are deprived of their need for and right to their fathers.
A ‘Signal of Transcendence’
Good fathers provide what Os Guinness, quoting sociologist Peter Berger, calls a “signal of transcendence” — specifically, a signal of the transcendent God and His love. In his new book, Signals of Transcendence, Guinness tells a story about his grandfather, Whitfield Guinness, a missionary to China. His love for his wife and children was a “signal of transcendence” that told the truth about God’s love. In fact, Whitfield’s devotion as a husband and father reverberated through the family for generations, and the fruit of his tenderness is evident even a century later.
Not all fathers provide such an example. I recently told of a friend who turned to me after a college chapel service and said, “If God is a Father, I want nothing to do with Him.” Millions share those feelings, not because of God’s actions, but because human fathers distorted their understanding of God. As it turns out, the consequences of fatherlessness are not only temporal, but eternal.
In fact, in his remarkable book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, psychologist Paul Vitz describes how many of the most famous atheists in history had either no relationship or a terrible relationship with their fathers.
Of course, no earthly father can represent God perfectly. We mess up, and when we do, we must ask forgiveness from God and from our children. It is also important to note that God promises to be a father for the fatherless. If your dad failed you, know that there’s a Father who will never forsake you, Who redeems brokenness in people and families and entire cultures, and Who rewrites stories despite statistics. You really can trust Him.
The Triangle of Truisms: Father, Mother, and Child
Tragically today, after the long culturewide denial of the significance of fathers, some seem committed to denying a relationship whose importance is even more obvious: of mothers. Even if moms are invisible in the photos of gay adoptive dads lying in hospital beds, the consequences of her absence in the lives and wellbeing of children won’t be. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.” And, all of the available evidence suggests, the lives of children in the process.