How much do fathers matter to the personal development of their
daughters? Scientists studying families have long suspected that
domestic instability and insufficient fathering predispose girls to
risky sexual behavior, but there was no hard evidence for this view.
A study published in the journal Developmental Psychology in May
used an ingenious research design to get some answers. Danielle
DelPriore and Bruce Ellis of the University of Utah, working with
Gabriel Schlomer of the State University of New York at Albany, teased
apart the effects of fathers within families.
They studied 101 pairs of adult sisters from families that had either
remained intact or had broken up by the time the younger sister
turned 14. In each family the sisters were distant enough from each
other in age—at least four years—that they would have had different
experiences of their father, especially if he had separated from the
family before the younger one reached maturity.
This research design made it possible to control for variables that
might interfere with clear conclusions about the effects of fathering.
Both sisters randomly received half their genes from the mother, half
from the father, so inherited genes couldn’t explain systematic
differences. Sibling order could matter: As teens, younger sisters
could for some reason be more risk-prone. But that was the point of
including intact families. If the sisters differed in sexual risk-taking
only in the disrupted families, it would be possible to zero in on how
the difference arose.
The researchers used retrospective questionnaires to probe parenting
and sexual experiences that the women—who were between 18 and 36
at the time of the study—recalled from high school. Sexual risk-taking
included promiscuity, unprotected sex and sex while intoxicated.
Older and younger sisters reported similar levels of mothering quality,
whether their families were intact or disrupted.
But the most striking finding was in older sisters with a large age gap
in the disrupted families. The father’s behavior, for better or worse,
usually affected the older sister much more than her younger sibling.
If these older sisters communicated well with their fathers and felt
close to them, they experienced much more parental monitoring and
hung out far less with sexually risk-prone peers. But this kind of
fathering had much less effect on the younger sisters, many of whom
didn’t have enough contact with their father for him to make much of
These factors explained the older sisters’ behavior. “The prolonged
presence of a warm and engaged father can buffer girls against early,
high-risk sex,” Dr. DelPriore said. This doesn’t mean that divorced
fathers can’t provide quality care. “A silver lining,” she adds, “is that
what dad does seems to matter more than parental separation.” In
other words, a divorce may be less harmful for a girl than more years
with a bad dad.
The growing field of evolutionary child psychology adds interesting
context to these findings. Biologists find that organisms in unstable
environments grow up faster and start reproducing earlier than those
in stable ones. Theoretically, in a stable environment you can take
more time growing into your reproductive activities, focusing on longterm
quality rather than on getting an early start. Conversely, in an
unstable situation, it might “pay” (in Darwinian terms) to begin
reproducing earlier, since in those girls’ worlds, a good man is hard to
This doesn’t rule out more familiar psychological explanations, but in
a child’s development, family instability—which, again, is something
different from divorce—might provide a catalyst setting off a
psychological change and risky behavior.
As Dr. DelPriore phrased the question, “What is it that dad does that
shields a daughter from sexual risk?” Dr. Ellis phrased the answer:
“It’s all about dosage of exposure to dads; the bigger the dose, the
more fathering matters—for better and for worse.”
LIFE IDEAS MIND & MATTER
By Melvin Konner
Updated June 2, 2017 12:23 p.m. ET