9+ Ways to Be a Better Dad According to Science

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Dads matter.

You probably already knew that, and so did I.

But don’t take it from me. Because the science on the subject is clear as day.

Children with good, loving, actively involved fathers have better outcomes in life.

They:

  • Have healthier relationships
  • Make more money & have more career success
  • Have less psychological problems
  • And often have higher IQs than their peers

That’s not to denigrate single mothers! Or lesbian couples! And it doesn’t doom kids who grow up without a father for one reason or another.

But if you’re alive and well, you owe it to your kids to be the best possible father you can be.

The question is: How exactly can you be a better dad?

Here are 9 ways you can start being a better dad right now, today:

  1. Start as soon as possible
  2. Just be around
  3. Call, write, text & email more
  4. Get involved at school
  5. Turn your health & fitness around
  6. Play rough
  7. Break stereotypes
  8. Work on your marriage/relationship
  9. Do the dirty work of discipline

Now let’s dive into the science and research behind these tips, and what kind of an impact they can really make.

(For each of these, I’ll also give you one idea you can use TODAY to get started.)

 


1. Start right now (as in, today)

The more you’re involved in your kid’s life from an early age, the better.

Seriously, there’s no time to waste!

So even though you can’t breastfeed or if you’re not the world’s greatest diaper changer, don’t miss out on key chances when your son or daughter is a baby to start forming that deep bond.

The research is pretty clear that the newborn-father bond is really important down the road for your child, with benefits like:

  • Faster brain development
  • Less depression later in life
  • More academic success
  • Healthier adult relationships

And that’s just for them.

The research also suggests that dads who actively form their own relationship with their newborn baby, including having alone time without their partner around, have less stress and more confidence about their parenting skills.

It’s super awesome that you’re doing research on how to be a better dad.

Time to get to work… like, now!

What you can do today:

Get some alone time with your child or baby.

Take them out of the house and give your partner a much-needed break, and give yourself some quality bonding time.

If it’s not feasible to get alone time, consider helping out or taking over a duty you wouldn’t normally do like:

  • Rocking baby back to sleep in the middle of the night
  • Preparing the bottles & feeding
  • Changing diapers
  • Doing school pick up or drop off
  • Helping with homework

You get the idea!

Just do anything you can today to get more one-on-one time or even just involvement with your kids, no matter how young or old.

Science says it’s a good idea.


2. Just be around

More than 1 in 4 kids in America grow up without their father in the home.

(It’s not clear if that includes lesbian couples, deceased fathers, or divorced dads who are still present and active in their child’s life.)

But what is clear is that there are way too many American dads who are simply not showing up.

(The number of single-father households with an absent mother is noticeably less, though growing.)

We talked above about the benefits for kids when they have an active, engaged father. But the opposite, or what can happen when dad is absent or not engaged, is equally horrible:

  • lower self-esteem
  • behavioral problems throughout life
  • poor academic performance
  • more likely to be involved in youth crime
  • higher frequency of drug and alcohol abuse

And the list goes on and on.

Just showing up at all and doing your best can be a great first step toward preventing a lot of this.

If you’re here, you’re probably already doing this, so congrats!

You’re already ahead of the curve.

What you can do today:

You’re really already doing it.

If you’re alive and in your child’s life enough to be doing research on how you can be a better dad, you’re doing better than a lot of men out there.

Keep up the good work.


3. Call, write, text, email, and video chat when you can’t be there

It’s been pretty extensively studied that men don’t communicate as much as women do.

We:

  • Talk less in general (12,000 spoke words a day vs 25,000 for women!)
  • Have trouble identifying and verbalizing our feelings
  • And prefer to communicate practical information (as opposed to talking just to bond)

I’m horribly guilty of this!

I go for very long stretches of time without speaking at all to some of my best friends in the world who live far away.

But that’s not a game you want to play when your relationship with your children is on the line.

The truth is, sometimes you just can’t be there.

Whether you’re traveling for work, or have strict visitation schedules after a contentious divorce, time apart from your children will be inevitable at some point.

Don’t let your “manliness” be an excuse to let the relationship and bond you share wither away.

For younger kids, they need to hear your voice and see your face frequently to strengthen their bond with you and practice their recognition of social cues.

For older kids and teenagers, it’s important to have regular conversations (real conversations!) as they learn to communicate their feelings. Not enough talking with parents can be followed by social isolation and shyness.

So stay in touch, however you can, whenever you can.

It really makes a difference.

What you can do today:

Get used to and comfortable with the idea of talking just to bond.

If you’re no good at conversation, don’t worry, there are plenty of tips all over the place that you can brush up on.

The easiest thing that most experts recommend is to ask more open-ended questions.

Try it tonight if you have older kids. Ask an open-ended question that isn’t logistical in nature:

Ask them about the details of something they’re interested in, and actually care about the answer!

One personal tip that I’ve found helps with younger kids, when you find that all you do is ask them questions (or tell them what to do), is to offer up more information from your end of the conversation.

My 3-year-old gets a kick out of it when I tell her everything I did that day.


4. Get more involved in what’s going on at school

Sometimes school can feel like this far-away, nebulous thing.

You:

  • Drop your kids off in the morning
  • Go about your business
  • Pick them up
  • Get a quick, cursory update about what happened
  • And then move on to other things!

A lot of parents don’t have much of an idea what’s going on until their kid is in disciplinary or academic trouble.

The research is pretty clear that when dads are involved in homework and school, kids typically do far better in academics.

So start making sure you go to parent-teacher conferences.

Help at the bake sale.

Volunteer at school functions.

Do anything you can to get involved early with your child’s education!

Just being present in that area of their life can have a huge positive ripple effect into their adulthood.

What you can do today:

Help with homework tonight!

Remember, it’s not your job to do your kids’ homework for them. Studies say if you start needing to offer more and more help, it could cause kids to be less autonomous and persistent at tasks.

But you can be:

  • motivator (encourage them to do it)
  • organizer (help them set up a good, quiet place to study)
  • distraction police (enforce the rules and shut off the TV!)

You probably also know your child’s learning style better than almost anyone else and can be a good bridge for them into topics they’re having trouble with.

The other benefit is that you’ll get an early indication of if your kid is struggling and needs extra help, and you can work with the school to make that happen before it becomes a problem.


5. Start taking your health and fitness seriously. Today!

I know, I know.

It’s really hard to eat right and exercise when you’re:

  • Raising kids
  • Working
  • Taking care of the house
  • And making time for other family and friends

But studies show that dad’s physical fitness and activity levels are most indicative of how active his children will be.

(It’s more highly-correlated than it is for mom.)

Just to be clear: You don’t need six pack abs to be a great dad.

But you absolutely SHOULD set a good example when it comes to eating right, staying active, and taking your health seriously.

Plan nutritious dinners for the family, do outside activities together, and live a positive example of overall wellness.

But a quick warning: If you actively and directly talk to your kids about weight and weight loss, you put them at risk for a lifetime of feeling unhappy and uncomfortable in their own bodies.

Keep that in mind, too.

When I finally got serious about this, I literally started with the most basic, free weightlifting routine I could find on the Internet and committed to going to the gym just 3 times per week.

(Here is the actual one I started with, from a great site called Nerd Fitness.)

A few years and several different programs later (quick plug for my favorite workout and nutrition program for dads), I have more energy and confidence than ever, and I have to believe that will alone will make me a better dad.

If not for you, do this for them.

What you can do today:

Forget working out for just one second.

Start by going to the damn doctor.

Did you know that a majority of men will only go to the doctor if they think something is seriously wrong?

Yeah, remember when I gave you all that credit for just “being around?”

Well, you won’t be around if you die young because you were too proud and macho to go see your doctor.

Schedule a check-up today and have those mysterious aches and pains taken care of.


6. Rough ’em up (playfully). It’s more important than you think.

There’s nothing quite like picking your kid up, throwing them over your shoulder, spinning them around, wrestling, etc.

The laughs that follow (from you and them) are some of the best things in life.

This is a classic dad-move, and if you already do lots of this, keep it up.

(If not, now is a good time to start.)

Researchers say dads roughhousing with their kids (yes, the girls, too) is obviously fun and great bonding time, but it could also be crucial for development.

Some of the benefits of roughhousing with your kids are:

  • Boosts in memory, learning, and language development
  • Strengthens emotional intelligence in kids
  • Helps develop morals and ethics in children

And plus, it’s just seriously fun and strengthens the bond between the two of you like almost nothing else in the world can.

What you can do today:

Bodyslam your kid.

OK, OK, not hard.

But toss ’em onto a bed. Wrestle them to the ground. Play tug of war.

Get a little bit rough with them every now and then. (Just be safe and careful about it)

It’s so much better for them than you could have possibly known!


7. Watch out for gender bias in your parenting style

It can be really easy to fall into the traps of how we think we’re “supposed” to treat boys and girls.

Because it’s not just coming from our brains. It’s coming from all around us at all times!

(My 3-year-old already INSISTS girls have to like pink and boys have to like blue, no matter how many times we tell her that’s not true.)

Just be aware of some of the stereotypes and make sure you’re consciously giving each of your kids all you have to give.

Want to know how to be a better dad to a son?

Don’t forget to talk to him. Really talk, like openly, about emotions. And not just the good ones.

Studies show fathers are far more likely to talk openly with their daughters about vulnerable emotions and topics.

Bonding over baseball and his first beer are great. But make sure you’re having those important talks, too.

Want to know how to be a better dad to a daughter?

Don’t forget to have some rough-and-tumble playtime with her, too (see above), and encourage achievement.

Tell her you’re proud of her.

Fathers have been observed to be less likely, on average, to do these things with their girls.

What you can do today:

The researchers in the link above studied the way dads interacted with their kids using a little microphone clipped onto their belt that would record occasional bursts of sound throughout the day.

You don’t have to go that far, but start paying attention to how you’re behaving with your son or daughter (if you have both, how do you do things differently?)

Think about if you’re missing out on certain experiences and bonding moments with your kids because you’re too rigidly adhering to those gender norms.


8. Put your marriage or partnership first as much as possible

This sounds counterintuitive.

You should actually put less energy and focus on your kids? And somehow that’s better for them?

Absolutely. Just hear me out.

In an article exploring “deadbeat dads” in the New York Times, David Brooks writes:

“The key weakness is not the father’s bond to the child; it’s the parents’ bond with each other.”

He goes on to explain that researchers have uncovered a common pattern:

  • Couple gets married
  • Couple has a child
  • Couple falls out of love for a variety of reasons
  • Couple splits up
  • New man enters the picture and biological dad is resigned to a role as “occasional best friend”

It’s a heartbreaking tale, but a common one even in fathers who desperately want to be there for their kids.

Parents who are happy and fulfilled in their marriage have a tendency to pass that joy on to their kids.

In an article on Psychology Today, it’s said that “a parent’s happiness allows children to feel happy and to trust that parent to meet their emotional needs.”

Let’s not get this twisted: Children of divorce do just fine in the long run.

But I think most of us would rather not put them through that. And all the research points to the fact that staying in an unhappy and contentious relationship would be about one of the worst things you can do for them.

What you can do today:

Plan a date night.

It sounds simple, but research says that doing something as basic and obvious as going out together even once a month gives parents a better chance of staying together.

Yes, life is hectic and it’s hard to get a babysitter.

Don’t let that be an excuse to let your relationship with your partner wither away.

Being a better husband will likely make you a better dad.


9. Don’t always be their best friend

Simply put?

You have to discipline your kids.

Don’t always leave it up to mom to be the bad guy (statistics show that more often than not, mom is the one setting rules, boundaries, and limits around the house).

In an article in the Telegraph, counselor Janey Downshire says:

“[Discipline from dad] helps the child start to find his brake pedal, and also, to be able to ultimately self-police, develop a conscience in the long term and have that moral compass.”

How about spanking? The research shows that, although moms are more likely to set and enforce rules, dads are more likely overall to resort to physical punishment like spanking.

Well, if you’re here for the actual, hard science, it’s pretty clear.

Spanking leads to a higher likelihood of issues with depression and anger in children over the long term.

What you can do today:

Let’s face it. On any given day, your child will probably do something:

  • Rude
  • Dangerous
  • Mean
  • Bratty
  • Or something else

Today is a good day to be the one to step in and correct that behavior.

Not by hitting them!

But by calmly and clearly explaining your expectations and enforcing consequences when those aren’t met.

Some good consequences for kids other than spanking include:

  • Taking away privileges
  • Ignoring them until they adjust their behavior
  • Not protecting them from the natural consequences of their actions

BONUS: How to be a better dad after divorce

So regarding #8 on the list (put your marriage or partnership first).

Sometimes, even after you give it everything you’ve got, things just don’t work out.

I don’t need to quote you the statistics on that.

But your job as dad doesn’t go away even if the relationship fails. In fact, it might become even more important.

How can you be a better dad after going through a divorce?

My one tip according to science is to take care of yourself.

You know how we talked about love and fulfillment in marriage flowing out to the kids?

It’s the same for single dads. If you’re happy and content in your new life as a solo father, that only gives you more positive energy to put into your parenting.

The science agrees. Taking time to rediscover yourself and find happiness is super important. And when the relationship wasn’t a good one in the first place, you’ll often end up better off as a stronger, happier person.

What you can do today:

Do one thing for yourself that you enjoy, especially something you didn’t make enough time for when you were part of a couple.

Whether that’s:

  • Exercise
  • Building something
  • Playing sports
  • Or just playing video games

Take some much-needed you-time. It’ll give you the energy and morale boost you need to keep being an amazing dad.


Wrapping Up

Being a great dad is far from an easy job.

Each and every day comes with new challenges. And they only get harder and harder over the years.

When the rest of life gets in the way (work, stress, marital problems), that only compounds the difficulty.

But the biggest and most important thing you can do to be a better dad is to show up and try.

That’s really what it comes down to.

I hope the rest of the tips on this list help, and they should! After all, they’re backed by some pretty great science and social research.

But if you do your best every day and learn from your mistakes when you screw up, you’ll be well on your way to being an amazing father.

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