Are Fathers Better Citizens?

As a surfer, I remember charging pretty big walls of cold, wintery Northern California water with the goal of getting a fast, albeit short, adrenaline-stoked ride. Years ago on Thanksgiving, I was pummeled by a big swell to the point that I wondered whether I would make it out of the water alive. But once I married and had kids, the risk element of waves larger than a single story high became less attractive to me. It wasn’t worth it. Too much at stake. Does fatherhood also reduce other types of risky behavior?

Fatherhood is Transforming

It apparently does. It is well known that fatherhood can be “transformative” or “tempering” for men. But what shape that transformation takes has not been studied very much, despite the fact that unattached men are considered by some to be a source of society’s ““suffering” or “instability.” Loose cannons so to speak.

Fatherhood and High Risk Behavior

A newly published study has tackled this issue. It addressed the changing patterns of crime and substance abuse in new fathers, as these behaviors can threaten both health and society. Specifically, the study asked whether men are less likely to drink, use tobacco or commit crimes after they become fathers. In other words, do tough guys straighten out after having kids?
The authors followed over 200 men ages 12 to 31 who demonstrated high rates of juvenile delinquency in a metropolitan area. They were assessed annually for self-reported acts of crime and court records were reviewed for arrests. Self-reported rates of beer, wine, hard liquor, tobacco and marijuana use were documented, as were co-habitation, marital status and age at first fatherhood. And remarkably, this study was conducted over 19 years!
It has been previous shown that marriage itself and getting older can reduce men’s negative behavior, but this study clearly demonstrated a real association between fatherhood by itself and reduced crime and substance abuse patterns. And, the effects were large and long lasting. Of note, these changes were greater amongst the older men in the group (late 20’s and 30s) and were distinct from those changes expected as men age. Lastly, unlike marriage, cohabitation alone was not shown to reduce risky behavior in young men.

A Golden Opportunity to Help Men Help Themselves

Why is this important? One reason is because it suggests that first fatherhood may present a real opportunity to improve the health and behavior of young men. God knows that there are not many opportunities to do this with those who consider themselves otherwise immortal. New fathers might be more willing to hear messages and make life style changes when they are holding what might be their noblest work in their arms. And these changes in behavior could affect the health of the individual, his children and his family. After all, and I am not sure who said this, “A baby will make love stronger, days shorter, nights longer, bankroll smaller, home happier, clothes shabbier, the past forgotten, and the future worth living for.”