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Do Fathers Matter?
I got interested in fatherhood in the usual way: I had children. In the 1980s, I had three children by my first marriage—two boys and a girl, who are now grown and prospering. A decade ago I remarried, and my wife Elizabeth and I have since had two boys. When Elizabeth and I had the boys, friends asked whether being a father was different the second time around. I lied. “Well, sure, I’ve made all the mistakes,” I would say. “This time I can get it right.” My older children were inclined to agree with the first proposition, but were dubious about the second.
The truth was, I felt no more prepared the second time than I had been the first time. And it didn’t take long to figure out that parenting, for me, was still a hit-and-miss affair. I watched myself once again making mistakes—sometimes the same mistakes I’d made before.
The first time around, I’d operated mainly on instinct, confident that love and attention would go far. One of my editors at the time, a coarse newspaperman with tangled white hair, a rumpled suit, and a carelessly knotted tie who favored three-martini lunches, told me that the most important things to do were to tell kids you love them and to spend time with them. And that’s what I did. It wasn’t bad advice, but I came to realize that it wasn’t nearly enough.
The second time around, I had more questions. What is it, exactly, that fathers do for their children? How much do fathers matter? And what in turn do children do for their fathers? These are questions for which many people, including my former editor, think they have the answer. Many of our parents think they have this figured out and are only too happy to point out our mistakes as we begin to raise our own families. Teachers, friends, fellow employees all know what we should be doing with our children, and many of them are eager to let us know, whether or not we’ve asked for advice. If you live in New York City, as I do, strangers on the street won’t hesitate to tell you that you shouldn’t be out with your baby in this weather, or that you should have brought an umbrella so the baby doesn’t catch a cold. (The link between using an umbrella and catching a cold is a scientific question I’ll leave for another book.)
We see this not only in friends and acquaintances but also in celebrities and popular culture. When Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees was suspended for using illicit drugs to boost performance, he blamed his fall on his father’s desertion. “The event that makes him so remote, so rudderless, took place when he was 9, when his father disappeared,” George Vecsey wrote in The New York Times. “This is not pop psychology to explain a man who blundered into the airplane propeller of adult reality. This is his own theory.”
Of course it is pop psychology, and it doesn’t do any more to enlighten us than our well-intentioned friends and family. As is the case with many of us, Rodriguez thinks he knows how his father’s absence affected him and why it might have influenced him to use illegal performance-enhancing drugs, threatening his baseball career. But while he’s entitled to his opinion, he can’t really know whether any of that is true.
Many of us have ideas about how our fathers might have helped or hurt us growing up, but even Rodriguez can’t be sure he’s right. That’s one of the things I hope to correct with this book. As a science reporter, I’m professionally interested in what we know to be true, not what we think we know. Much of my work as a journalist has had a single aim: to replace stereotypes and half-truths with what scientists have discovered to be true. When I plunged back into fatherhood for the second time, I thought it would be useful to apply that same rigor to our beliefs about fathers. The more I began to question what I knew, the more I found to question.
Is infant bonding limited to mothers? Do fathers contribute to their kids’ language development? How do fathers affect children’s performance in school? Do they have any influence over their teenage children? And do older fathers, as we’ve seen in the news, pose a risk to their children?
Much of what we think we know about these things is based on misconceptions. It’s long past time to clean out the attic, get rid of these myths, and take a good look at what researchers are learning about fathers and their children and families. The short answer is that fathers are vastly important in their children’s lives, in ways that both scholars and parenting experts have overlooked.
For a long time, until women began entering the workforce in bigger numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, fathers had a valuable—and often overlooked—role to play in the family. They brought home the paychecks that housed and fed their families and provided a little extra for dance lessons, Little League uniforms, and bicycles for the kids. And while bringing home a paycheck might not seem like the most nurturing thing a parent could do, it was vitally important: nothing is more devastating to the lives of children than poverty. Keeping children fed, housed, and out of poverty was significant.
But was that it? What else could fathers claim to contribute to their children?
As recently as a generation ago, in the 1970s, most psychologists and other “experts” had an easy answer to that question: not much. With regard to infants, especially, fathers were thought to have little or no role to play. In 1976, Michael E. Lamb, a developmental psychologist and pioneer in research on fathers, wrote that the emphasis on mothers in infants’ development was so one-sided that it seemed as if “the father is an almost irrelevant entity in the infant’s social world.” For decades, psychologists had “assumed that the mother-infant relationship is unique and vastly more important than any contemporaneous, or indeed any subsequent, relationships.” The attachment to this nurturing and protective adult was supposed to give the infant an evolutionary advantage—even Darwin had endorsed this exclusive focus on the mother, the experts claimed, and who was going to argue with Darwin?
There wasn’t much evidence for the irrelevancy of fathers.
But there wasn’t a lot of data to suggest they were relevant, either. Few had asked the question, and nobody knew the answer. The irrelevancy of fathers had become an article of faith among researchers, and why would any of them question something they knew to be true?
Lamb was among the first to start challenging this assumption. Studies were just appearing that suggested that the bond between mothers and infants wasn’t nearly as strong as others had assumed, and that the amount of time mothers and infants spent together wasn’t a good predictor of the quality of their relationship. Finally, a few researchers who had dared to look elsewhere were finding that “the interaction that at least some infants have with their fathers is enjoyable and marked by highly positive emotions on both sides.” This insight was beginning to appear in professional journals only a few years before my oldest son was born, at which time I could have easily persuaded the professionals that, yes, some infants have fun with their fathers, and yes, you will find that highly positive emotions are involved.
I don’t mean to suggest that my experiences with my son should have been sufficient to demolish prevailing psychological theories. But didn’t any of these researchers have kids? Hadn’t any of them seen a father on the sidewalk or in the grocery store babbling, grinning, and otherwise embarrassing himself trying to coax a smile out of his baby? Hadn’t any of the fathers among them done the same thing themselves?
It was around this time that Lamb and other researchers began to recognize the importance of fathers in child’s play. It’s now widely understood that fathers are more likely to engage very young children in what’s usually called rough-and-tumble play. That was one of the first important insights about fathers’ relationships with infants and toddlers, and it came out of Lamb’s research. Fathers in some of those early studies were more likely than mothers to encourage infants to explore, and to challenge them. Mothers were more likely to play with toys with their preschool age children, while fathers wrestled around with them on the floor.
A study by Lamb found that infants actually preferred to be held by their fathers—because fathers were likely to play with them, while mothers were likely to feed them or change their diapers. Two-year-olds who wanted to play sought out their fathers more than their mothers. Playing, wrestling, and otherwise challenging children is a hallmark of the involvement of fathers with their children at all ages.
At the same time, researchers started to recognize that infants have relationships not only with fathers but with other relatives and friends, which made sense. Lamb cites an observation by the anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1962 that attachments to others—in addition to mothers—have “clear survival value . . . since the child then has insurance against loss of a parent.”
Many researchers argued that fathers often had a negative reaction to their wives’ pregnancies and had limited interaction with newborns. But studies in the mid-1970s were beginning to conclude that fathers were excited about becoming parents and were very interested in spending time with their newborns—again, a finding that should have been obvious, one would think, to any researcher who got out of his office and wandered through a hospital maternity ward. On the other hand, hospitals had apparently not figured that out, either, because they were still providing few opportunities for fathers’ involvement around the time of a child’s birth.
Psychologists and other social scientists, who should have been leading the charge to change prevailing views of fatherhood, instead contributed to the devaluation of fathers.
Many researchers believed that because mothers were the primary caretakers, they were far more important than fathers. That prevailing view put fathers in a tough spot. Fathers could hardly assert their importance when they were repeatedly being told they were irrelevant, except as the providers of the family income.
The record shows that fathers were—and are—widely overlooked in scientific studies. You needn’t take my word for this; you can do a little experiment and see for yourself.
Go to the website of PubMed, the online catalogue of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Search for “mothers,” and see how many studies come up. Then search “fathers.” The last time I did it, I got 97,934 studies when I entered “mothers.” “Fathers” turned up 15,156—less than one-sixth as many. Every way I tried it, the results were more or less the same. “Maternal” pulled up 279,519 entries; “paternal” called up fewer than one-tenth as many. Until recently, when we thought about the roles of fathers in the family, we relied on hunches, instincts, prejudice, and misinformation, rather than real understanding.
Others have noted the disparity between studies of mothers and of fathers. In 2005, Vicky Phares, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, reviewed 514 studies of clinical child and adolescent psychology from the leading psychological journals. Nearly half of them excluded fathers. Some involved both parents, but only 11 percent focused exclusively on fathers.
In my research, I quickly began running into examples of what Phares was finding: in 2006, for example, Myrna M. Weissman, a distinguished epidemiologist and researcher at Columbia University, published a study seeking to find out whether treating depressed mothers might reduce the known increased risk of anxiety and depression in their children.
Treating the mothers did improve the mental health of the children, but the study didn’t include any data on the fathers. Could the involvement of warm, understanding fathers have helped the children even more? Could cold or dismissive fathers have made things worse? Another researcher who was studying interactions between parents and their newborns kept a detailed log of a mother’s behavior and activity with her infant. When the mother gave the infant to its father, the researcher wrote “Baby given to father” and closed her notebook; the experiment was over. In 2005, at a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, I found hundreds of scientists describing research on children, families, and parenting, and only a dozen or so dealing with fathers. Nearly all the authors of these studies began their talks by noting how little research on fathers had been done.
Kyle D. Pruett, a psychiatrist at Yale who has studied fathers since the 1980s, says that even when fathers are included in research on such important issues as attention deficit disorder, autism, childhood depression, and teen suicide, the researchers usually fail to consider that the father might be part of the solution to the problem. “When we bother to look for the father’s impact, we find it—always. Not looking at the impact of fathers and children on one another has given the entire field (and the best-selling parenting books it produces) a myopic and worrisomely distorted view of child development, a view with staggering blind spots.” The books he’s referring to include those by Dr. Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, and Penelope Leach, among others. Pruett’s review of subsequent editions shows they have begun to “nod more often in the father’s direction,” but “in their souls they couldn’t get past the old seduction of the sacred mother-infant bond.” The dismissal of fathers could not have been clearer. The mark of progress was that most researchers were beginning to recognize the problem and point it out.
Excerpted from Do Fathers Matter?: What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked
by Paul Raeburn, published in June 2014 by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © by Paul Raeburn. All rights reserved.
About the author
Paul Raeburn is the chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker site at MIT. His most recent book is Acquainted with the Night: A Parent’s Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children. He writes the About Fathers blog for Psychology Today and is a regular guest on NPR. Raeburn was formerly the science editor at BusinessWeek and the Associated Press. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine,Discover, and Scientific American, among other publications. A past president of the National Association of Science Writers, he lives in New York City with his wife and children.
Author photo by Chellise Michael
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