Fathers play a vital role in the upbringing of their children, different from that of a mother, according to a recent book that examines a variety of scientific evidence.
In “Do Fathers Matter?: What Science is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” (Scientific American/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux), journalist and author Paul Raeburn examines the various stages of fatherhood.
For a long time, he explained, fathers were not considered to have a big role in their children’s development, particularly in the early years. “The irrelevancy of fathers had become an article of faith among researchers,” he said.
This opinion started to change in the mid-1970’s, but even as recently as 2005 one review of 514 studies of clinical child and adolescent psychology from leading journals found that nearly half of them excluded fathers and only 11% focused exclusively on fathers.
The topics examined by Raeburn cover a wide range. On matters of health he noted that while the link between maternal health and their children is well known research in the last decade or so has revealed that the father’s health leading up to the time of conception also has a role to play.
Factors such as whether or not the father had a healthy diet, body weight, substance abuse, exposure to toxins and pollution, are a factor in influencing the health of their children.
During their wives’ pregnancy men also experience weight and hormonal changes and after birth the hormonal changes are higher in those men who devote more time to the care of their child.
While the hormonal changes in women are related to the physiological process in pregnancy, for men the changes relate to the hormonal changes in the mother. There is not direct proof of a connection between maternal and paternal hormones, but Raeburn affirmed, there is a strong suggestion that there is a link.
Wired to children
Changes also take place in fathers’ brains during the first months of a newborn’s life. The changes occurred in areas of the brain associated with motivations and moods, and their involvement with their infants.
“Fathers are clearly wired to respond to their children; their brains are engaged,” Raeburn said.
As well, fathers engage with infants in a different way to mothers. This, Raeburn affirmed, is evidence of the importance of fathers spending time with their babies. One effect of this came out in a study of couples and the sleep patterns of their babies. The higher the involvement by fathers in the care of their babies the lower the nocturnal awakenings by the infants.
Greater engagement by fathers is also associated with lower levels of aggressive behavior by young children, including tantrums, biting and kicking.
Other research has found that fathers who were involved with the mother of their child during pregnancy led to a reduction in the risk that the children would die in the first year of life. Meanwhile infants whose fathers were absent and had not involvement in the pregnancy were more likely to be born with lower birth weight and to be born prematurely.
Additionally, depression in fathers during pregnancy increases the risk of depression in children, just as mothers’ depression does, even though fathers have no direct connection with the fetus during pregnancy.
From babies to teens
The importance of fathers does not cease as children grow up. Fathers play a crucial role in children’s language development. As well, affectionate and engaging interactions between fathers and children lead to better social skills.
One study found that when children were supported by their fathers in the transition to school then it led to a much better relationship between the child and teacher.
The positive influence continues as children move into their teens, with those supported by their fathers doing better at school and having less disciplinary problems.
For girls a warm relationship with their father means a reduced risk of early puberty, early initiation of sex, and teen pregnancy.
When it comes to sons there is evidence that those who have positive childhood memories of their fathers were more likely to be able to handle the stresses of adulthood.
The reciprocity between husband and wife was mentioned by Pope Francis in his homily to a group of couples he married on Sept. 21.
Marriage, he said, is all about a: “man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. This is the task that you both share.”
As the evidence in Raeburn’s book demonstrates the father’s role in a family is a vital complement to that of the mother. The trend towards single parenthood so prevalent in many countries, usually without a father being present, should be a cause of great concern.