It’s not news that becoming a parent changes everything. But a new study suggests that fatherhood’s transformative power is responsible for new dads’ decreased rates of tobacco and alcohol use and crime.
Researchers spent nearly 20 years determining that fatherhood predicts good behavior. They tracked 191 at-risk boys from the time they were 12 to 31 and noted that once they became fathers, something changed: their bad habits weren’t quite as bad as before they had children. They participated in fewer crimes and used less alcohol and tobacco.
Previous research has shown that marriage can stem destructive choices, but this is the first study to isolate fatherhood as a predictor of good behavior.
“This research suggests that fatherhood can be a transformative experience, even for men engaging in high-risk behavior,” said lead researcher David Kerr, assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University in a statement, adding that it “presents a unique window of opportunity for intervention, because new fathers might be especially willing and ready to hear a more positive message and make behavioral changes.”
Researchers interviewed the study participants each year, asking about their criminal activity, arrests, and alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use. They also controlled for background risks, such as having had parents with substance abuse or criminal backgrounds, and for the aging process.
Men who became fathers in their late 20s and early 30s showed the most improvement; they displayed greater declines than men who’d welcomed children in their teens or early 20s. As they approach adulthood, boys tend to mature, cutting back on substance use and crime. But that alone doesn’t explain the decline in bad behavior. Fatherhood, said Kerr, “was an independent factor in predicting decreases in crime, alcohol and tobacco use.”
The study didn’t look at why men who became fathers later rather than earlier were more likely to change. But it could be due to a greater willingness to embrace fatherhood at a more natural point in their lives. In other words, if you want your man to mature, consider adding a baby to the mix.
Kerr says the findings, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, indicate there’s “a unique window of opportunity for intervention” that could further influence new fathers already interested in taking steps to lead healthier, safer lives.