Over the years, fathers were often seen as the parent who was less important to child raising while the mother shouldered all the work and responsibility. Paul Raeburn gathers overwhelming evidence that fathers bring more to the child-rearing than many people believe.
In the 1970s, it was thought that fathers didn’t have much to contribute to the development of their children. Admittedly, science journalist Paul Raeburn writes in his new book, Do Fathers Matter?, researchers at the time had little data to prove the value of fathers—but that was because few had taken the time to look into the impact of fathers on their offspring. “When we bother to look for the father’s impact, we find it—always,” Yale psychiatrist and fatherhood research pioneer Kyle Pruett told Raeburn. Ignoring dads, Pruett says, produced a field of research with “staggering blind spots.
Fast forward to today, and the body of work that psychologists, biologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce on fatherhood is “one of the most important developments in the study of children and families,” Raeburn believes, even though many findings have yet to receive wide attention.
When it comes to his own family, Raeburn, who is a father of five, shares, “I’m glad to know my involvement is a good thing. But that’s not why I spend time with my kids. I do it because I like it.”
Raeburn shares seven ways that fathers are influencing their offspring from before birth to the child’s teen years.
In the Womb: Fighting for Resources
Some imprinted genes, or genes that are identified as coming from the male or female parents, compete for resources long before the baby is born. According to Harvard University biologist David Haig, there are maternal genes that push the fetus to pull as much nourishment and energy from the mother even if it’s a risk to her health. Maternal genes will deliver only what the growing child needs. He explains that the maternal genes have a vested interest in the mother’s well-being while the paternal genes favor a greater allocation of time and effort.
In Pregnancy: The Power of Presence
During a woman’s pregnancy, there would appear to be little a father could do to impact the growing child. A recent University of South Florida study shows that’s not the case. Infants whose fathers were absent during pregnancy were more likely to be born prematurely or with lower birth weights than those whose fathers were present. Such babies were also four times more likely to die within their first year. Even in mothers, complications of pregnancy that would seem to have no connection to male involvement, including anemia and high blood pressure, were more common when fathers were absent.
At Birth: Men Deliver Relief
Old sitcoms showing fathers anxiously pacing in waiting rooms while their wives delivered their children were no exaggeration: From the 1930s, when most U.S. births had moved from the home to the hospital, until the late 1960s, when more men had successfully agitated to gain a place by their wives’ bedsides, delivery was a women-and-professionals only affair, to the apparent detriment of everyone involved. As more men took their place in the maternity ward, women reported feeling less pain, and requests for pain medication declined. Mothers were even less likely to cry. What’s more, men present for their children’s birth report being more attached to their infants and more involved in their care. Letting dads in, Raeburn writes, “pays off in ways no one anticipated.”
Postpartum: An Underreported Risk
How can we gauge the importance of paternal companionship in a child’s early months? In part by observing what happens when infants are deprived of it. One in 10 men experience some form of postpartum depression, Raeburn reports, limiting their ability to emotionally connect with their babies. Children of fathers with major episodes of postpartum depression appear to be eight times as likely as others to have behavior problems as they grow and 36 times as likely to have difficulty getting along with peers.
Toddlerhood: Dads Limit Aggression
Researchers from the University of Oxford found that when fathers kept their infants at a remote distance from them, the children were more likely to develop aggression later in life. In those cases, it didn’t matter how the mothers interacted with the child. Swedish researchers in a related meta-analysis of 24 studies of paternal involvement found that dads who helped care for the children, played with them and took them on outings developed fewer behavior problems in early childhood as well as lowering the risk of adolescent delinquency.
Early Childhood: Look Who Gets You Talking
In at least one aspect of childhood—acquiring language—fathers simply matter more than mothers. For example, researchers studying parental roles in language development among poor, rural children found that a father’s use of vocabulary when reading to kids at six months of age predicted their expressiveness at 15 months and their use of advanced language at age three—regardless of the mother’s educational level or how she spoke to the children. The hypothesis: Since mothers spend more time with children, they’re more likely to use words with which kids are most familiar, while fathers, less attuned to their children’s linguistic comfort zone, introduce a wider vocabulary.
Teen Years and the Scent of the Dad
Evolutionary biologist were bewildered over the fact that girls with absent fathers tended to reach sexual maturity earlier and had high rates of teen pregnancy. University of Arizona’s Bruce Ellis studied families where the parents were divorced as well as families where the daughters were at least five years apart, which gave the older daughter more exposure to the father. In the families with daughters five years apart, he found that the younger girls were getting their first periods almost one year earlier than the older girls.
Psychologist Sarah Hill of Texas Christian University told Raeburn that she believes a father’s absence delivers a subconscious cue about “the mating system they are born into” and that men will not stick around, so they need to find mates quickly. Their genes then effectively push the girls into early puberty. (This effect is more pronounced in families in which the absent fathers had not been a positive presence while in the home.) Ellis believes the source of this phenomenon could be related to a father’s scent. In animal experiments, there is evidence that sustained exposure to a father’s pheromones can slow down puberty. That hypothesis remains largely untested in humans.