June 15, 2006 — Want to increase the odds that girls won’t be abused, boys won’t land in prison, and neighborhoods won’t be rife with crime? Make sure there is a biological or adoptive father, married to the mother of his children, in every household.
According to research by University of Virginia assistant professor of sociology W. Bradford Wilcox, men play a distinctive and often unrecognized role in protecting their children and their communities. “Children who grow up with their fathers in a married household are significantly less likely to be sexually abused, to end up in prison or to become pregnant as a teenager,” Wilcox said. “Communities that have lots of fathers at home are markedly safer than communities where fathers are absent from the home.”
The protective qualities of fathers are highlighted in “Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” a report recently published by the Institute for American Values that summarizes social scientific literature on marriage and fatherhood. The report was co-authored by Wilcox with 15 other leading family scholars in sociology, psychology, economics and anthropology.
Here are four findings from the report:
Children living with their fathers in an intact, married home are almost 50 percent less likely to be sexually abused than children living in a single-parent home.
According to Wilcox, men who have a biological or adoptive tie to their children from an early age are more likely to regulate their attraction to the child and their emotional reactions to the child when the child acts out. “Conversely, when mothers are not married to their children’s father, they are more likely to bring biologically unrelated men into the household who, in turn, are more likely to pose a sexual and physical risk to their kids,” Wilcox said. “In fact, in one study from the University of Missouri, kids in cohabitating households are shown to be almost 50 times more likely to die of abuse compared to kids living in an intact married household where fathers are present.”
Boys who grow up with their fathers in an intact, married home are 50 percent less likely to end up in prison as young adults than children living in a single-parent or step-family.
“Dads tend to be more focused on the rules, and when it comes to discipline, they tend to be the ultimate backstops,” Wilcox said. “Part of the reason may be that men have a disciplinary advantage over women in terms of their size, strength and even the tone of their voice. Kids tend to listen to their fathers more carefully when there is a command given. That’s something we don’t always recognize and appreciate, and it’s particularly important, at least empirically, with respect to adolescent boys, who are more likely to respond to discipline from their father than from their mother.”
Girls who grow up apart from their fathers typically experience the onset of puberty at an earlier age and have sex at an earlier age than girls who grow up with their fathers in an intact, married home. They are also three times more likely to become young, unwed mothers.
Wilcox points to biological and social reasons for this finding.
Biologically, “there is something about being in the presence of one’s father in an intact married household that retards puberty in girls, whereas being in the presence of an unrelated male promotes puberty in girls,” he said, noting that a similar phenomenon has been observed in the animal kingdom. “This has led psychologists to suspect pheromones — chemicals that male and female mammals produce and unconsciously emit to one another — as the culprit. In the case of human girls, pheromones emitted by an unrelated male may accelerate their biological clock. This can be problematic, because when girls develop prematurely, they are more likely to become attracted to older boys and men and to have sex and become pregnant at an early age.”
Socially, girls raised in an intact married household have the opportunity to observe how their fathers relate to their mothers, Wilcox said. “If a father is affectionate, responsible and considerate to the girl’s mother, the girl is much more likely to look for those qualities in the boys and men she dates and then the man she ends up marrying. If she has an affectionate, engaged relationship with her father who lives in her own home, she’s also much more likely to avoid premature sexual activity.
“In contrast, if dad is not around and mom has a series of boyfriends, or remarries so that there is a stepfather in the household, the daughter may not have the opportunity to observe the same positive role modeling, or to attach as strongly to the new man in the household. Therefore, she’s more likely to seek out inappropriate attention from boys and men and to end up in problematic relationships.”
Communities with large numbers of fatherless households are significantly more likely to experience high levels of murder and robbery.
Wilcox points to the work of Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, whose research shows that one of the strongest predictors of violent urban crime in the United States is the percentage of households within that community that are fatherless. “Dads play a important role not only in socializing their sons, but also in making sure that young men living in their community behave themselves,” Wilcox said. “In neighborhoods where there are lots of fatherless households, the boys are more likely to misbehave.”
In addition to serving as the lead author of “Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition,” Wilcox is co-author of a forthcoming report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families called “The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children.” He is currently assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University,
More information about “Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition” can be found at www.americanvalues.org/html/r-wmm.html.