Alex Jensen's children are small and playful — little blond bundles of energy and curiosity that call to mind the part of Newton's law of inertia that proclaims bodies in motion tend to stay that way. Until they run out of oomph.
In many ways, Jensen, 32, is a pretty typical dad. But he's also an assistant professor in Brigham Young University's School of Family Life, both a teacher and a researcher who studies why some families flourish and others falter.
He knows a lot about what researchers call the do's and don'ts of parenting, and why many studies find that moms and dads may influence their children in different and sometimes unexpected ways.
"I want to help my children become happy and healthy adults, not to remain children," he says, referring to Charlotte, 6, Olivia, nearly 5, and Luke, almost 2. He knows the primary influence on them physically and emotionally comes from parenting decisions he and his wife, Heidi, 30, make.
He's not just a financial resource for his family. He knows the job he does as a father will help determine his children's future development, including language, thinking and physical, social and emotional well-being. His role will echo in whether they're ready for school and stay with it, whether they are socially adept, whether they become parents too young, whether they abuse substances, whether they give up or have persistence, and much more.
Growing up is a path paved by circumstances like the resources a family has and where they live. But research shows fathers who show up for their kids and are positively involved help decide which trail the kids even set out on and the shape they're in when they reach each milepost.
As he teaches, Jensen sometimes talks about "the intergenerational transmission of parenting." That's the idea that how parents treat children is based on their personal experience with their own parents — both good and bad. Dads who had great fathers themselves usually try to emulate them. Dads whose fathers were negligent, abusive or indifferent may use them as a what-not-to-do model of fatherhood.
But Jensen's also acutely aware that individual children within families are different and have unique challenges. His middle child, Olivia, for instance, has autism, which "totally changes the dynamic in the way I approach parenting."
Eighteen months ago, when Charlotte was the age Olivia is now, she was writing, reading and doing well with math. Olivia only recently learned her colors. She just potty trained, and "that has been huge."
That his expectations are different for each child sometimes creates tension between the girls, he says. He tries to let them both do things that are hard, but admits it sometimes scares him.
Recently, a friend asked if she and her kids could take Charlotte and Olivia with them to a nearby park. Jensen knew his oldest daughter was mature enough, but was more anxious about his middle child. It could be a "huge confidence builder" for Olivia. But what if she wandered off or got too stressed?
To complicate his decision, one of his own studies, published two years ago in the Journal of Family Psychology, found clearly that parents who favor one child over another increase likelihood one or both will abuse alcohol or drugs. And a child's perception of favoritism matters more than whether it actually occurs.
He had to find a way to mesh research on being a good dad with his own fatherly fear. "Six months ago, I wouldn't have let her go. But at her age, there's no explanation she can get that would make her understand anything but 'he doesn't trust me as much as he does my sister,'" says Jensen. Olivia got to go to the park, with a reminder to his friend and his older daughter to pay close attention to her.
Being a good dad is a process, helped along by research that shows what benefits kids and what doesn't.
Zero to Three, a national organization focused on policy, programs and research impacting early childhood development, highlights studies that say fathers who are actively involved during pregnancy are more likely to be engaged parents later.
Research says babies who attach to warm, responsive dads grow into better students who are more socially adept. When dads help with routine tasks like feeding and bathing their babies and toddlers, those kids are more confident as they grow up. When the kids wed, they have less conflict in their marriages.
Recent studies also say fathering quality — especially the quality of a dad's relationship with his children — is key.
A new study led by University of Utah post-doctoral fellow Danielle J. DelPriore compared full sisters who spent different amounts of time living with their fathers because of divorce or separation to show how the fathering quality the girls experienced impacted them. Comparing sisters who lived for different lengths of time with their dads helped tease out impact of quality from that of genetics, socioeconomic status, religious background and other factors.
The relationship between dad quality and risky sexual behavior is not happenstance, DelPriore says of the findings, which were published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
"The quality of a father's relationship with his daughter has implications for the overall monitoring she receives from her parents and how likely she is to affiliate with more promiscuous or more prosocial friends," DelPriore told the Deseret News.
The sisters studied were four or more years apart and in each case, the parents stopped living together before the younger sister turned 14.
"For better or worse," the dads lived with the older sister longer and had greater influence on her behavior. The daughters who benefited from high-quality fathering — dads who were attentive and forged close relationships with their daughters — made better choices and avoided challenges like promiscuous sexual behavior.
Other recent research confirm dad's impact is direct, both in the short term and over time, says Claire Vallotton, associate professor and investigator of a pair of studies by Michigan State University published last summer. They examined how the quality of a father-child relationship influences a child's development. One focused on the father's impact on language and cognitive development; the other looked at early and long-term social development. The findings were published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly and Infant and Child Development.
"A lot of research on dads historically focused on whether they're involved in a child's life, on whether they are in the house or not. A lot of the assumption there is dad's main contribution is providing economic resources," Vallotton said in an interview. "We wanted to look at the quality of the relationships and how that influences a child's development. That's more similar to how we study moms — as a parent, not just as another adult in the household."
Both studies considered the stress levels and mental health challenges of the moms and dads, married or not, of the same children. When dads were less stressed, the children had a better relationship and improved language development. While the impact on cognition was the same for both boys and girls, dads more strongly influenced the language development of boys. A father's language interaction, such as talking to or reading to kids, with preschool-age children helped predict kindergarten readiness.
Vallotton said it was not clear if toddler boys were more vulnerable in terms of language development than girls, or if there is something specific about how dads talk to the boys.
The second study showed both parents' mental health contributed to the toddler's behavior problems. And the dad's mental health made a difference to the children's long-term social skills, including how cooperative or self-controlled they were in fifth grade. Like other studies, it indicates dads with depression or mental illness need to seek help.
The researchers said the findings add to a growing body of research showing a father's temperament, behaviors and the relationship he has with his children change their social development. It's not just whether he lives with the family or not or his financial support.
There are plenty of specific things men can do to improve as fathers. As Zero to Three's Claire Lerner writes, "The more time fathers spend in enriching, stimulating play with their child — such as playing pretend or sharing stories — the better the child's math and reading skills are at 10 and 11 years old."
Dads typically play differently than moms, and that's a finding that W. Bradford Wilcox, father of several grade-school-age kids, has taken to heart.
"We know that fathers who play with their children have kids who are more socially adept. Something about rough-housing with your children teaches kids how to control their bodies, interact with others, and the like," says Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. "So, I've been more deliberate about getting outdoors, playing soccer and otherwise rough-housing with the kids."
Dads often have traits that serve their children well. For example, while research shows the sons of financially successful fathers tend to do better financially themselves, it's likely due more to dad's "smarts, advice, work ethic and other intangibles" than to any money-related assistance, according to a study in the Journal of Political Economy.
Another study found that playing ball or raking leaves with dad is more important to kids than fancy vacations. BYU researchers said families forge tighter connections and function better when dad does ordinary "core" activities with the kids. Relationships are not nearly as good when fathers only spend leisure or recreation time with children during scheduled vacations and organized activities.
Jensen believes dads matter "in the ways they spend times with kids, the ways they discipline and teach them, the ways they love their kids." He strives to be the dad whose kids choose to tell him what's going on in their lives and what matters to them.
"Research says the best dads are caring and responsive, but have high expectations," says Jensen. "I definitely try to do all those things. Another area of research suggests that fathers do a great job when they work as a team with their wife or partner. When parents can work together as a team, even if they're divorced, it's better for their kids."
That's a point experts hit again and again: For the sake of their children, fathers and mothers must work cooperatively as parents, even if they don't always get along with each other personally. Carolyn Cowan, an adjunct professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California Berkeley and a co-parenting expert, says when fathers and mothers collaborate, there's less friction and unhappiness between them and the children thrive more academically and also socially with their peers. The kids are also less likely to be either aggressive or withdrawn.
"Most fathers appreciate this good news because they are trying to be more involved with their children than their fathers were with them," says Cowan.
Her husband, Phil Cowan, a professor emeritus of psychology at Berkeley, emphasizes that a father's positive involvement with both the children and the other parent creates benefits for the whole family across areas that include physical and mental health, life satisfaction, employment, school and relationships with others outside the family. He adds, "A second caring parent simply gives everyone in the family a boost."