August 27, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The science on the importance of fathers to children is growing (Institute for Family Studies, 8/22/17). To date, most of that has been in the areas of sociology and psychology where emotional well-being and demographic phenomena are recorded and associated with father absence or presence. So we’ve known for years that various destructive behaviors are highly correlated with father absence. But scientists are now delving into the biochemistry of father absence and, unsurprisingly, it appears to back up the behavioral findings.
I’ve written many times about the best dataset yet for studying various phenomena associated with families and family breakdown, the Fragile Families and Child Well-being study conducted by Sara MacLanahan and Irwin Garfinkle among others. It’s a longitudinal study of 5,000 families in which kids are born to unmarried parents or those otherwise considered at risk for family breakdown. Those parents and their kids have been studied every few years since 1998, and literally hundreds of papers have been produced using the Fragile Families data.
Most recently, biochemical data were added to the FFCW data. DNA samples have so far been taken at two points, 2007 and 2013, and tested for telomere length. Now, my understanding of telomere length and its correlation with behavior is limited at best, so please bear with me. Anyone who wants to educate me further on the subject, feel free to chime in.
Telomeres are protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. They reduce in length every time the cell divides. At one point they become short enough that the cell can no longer divide and the cell dies. More importantly, shortened telomeres are associated (whether as a cause or as a reflection) with high stress.
Here’s Dr. Daniel Notterman who’s one of the authors of the recent study explaining the matter:
Telomere length (TL) has been shown in many studies to be associated with chronic stress of diverse origins in both children and adults. We reasoned that separation or loss of a father would be a significantly stressful event in the life of a young child. If that were the case, we hypothesized that father loss would be associated with telomere attrition, and that turned out to be the case. We know that chronic stress is also associated with long-term adverse effects on health, including cardiovascular and behavioral health. Whether accelerated telomere attrition is just a biomarker of these subsequent health effects, or actually plays a causal role in producing these effects is not known at present, but it is the subject of intense laboratory and clinical study. In either case, by examining telomere length, we get an early window (by age 9 years in our study) into adverse health effects that may not be realized for many years.
In other words, father absence, being highly stressful to children, is associated with shorter telomeres that are themselves associated with compromised cardiovascular functioning and behavioral deficits. Those effects may show up much later in life. Father absence then seems to impact individuals at a biochemical level.
The researchers examined three types of father absence, death, incarceration and divorce. Telomere shortening was worst for children whose fathers had died, somewhat less for those whose fathers were in prison and least for those with divorced or separated dads. Shortening for boys was shown to be 40% worse than for girls.
It further appears that one of the reasons for the increased stress brought about by father absence is the loss of his income. Obviously, loss of income is stressful. That may be why the death of a father has more impact on telomere length than does, for example, divorce. Death ends all of Dad’s income, while divorce does not.
Of course, as we know, single mothers are more likely to live in poverty than any other demographic group. That’s true whether they’re divorced or simply never married. And single mothers earn less than two-thirds of what single fathers do, on average. So it may be that never having a father may have as great an impact on telomere length as losing one does.
I’ve argued before that, since single fathers generally earn more money than do single mothers and since poverty is highly associated with negative outcomes for kids, fathers should tend to receive a preference in custody and parenting time decisions. Now it seems there’s biochemical backup for that idea.
Notterman doesn’t recommend any public policies based on this new information.
We think that our findings reinforce the growing understanding of a father’s importance in the life of his children. We do not think that our data support a conclusion that one type of relationship between a child’s parents is more favorable than another; rather, we conclude that a central role for the father is optimal for his child’s well-being.
But I will. Courts are now on notice that the loss of a father via divorce is a significant factor in negative health and behavioral outcomes for kids and that those effects can last long into adulthood. This occurs at the most elemental, sub-cellular level. Courts therefore are advised to reduce the impact of divorce on kids by ensuring that divorce doesn’t mean the loss of the child’s father.
And that of course means they must order equal or substantially equal parenting whenever possible.
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#sharedparenting, #fatherabsence, #biochemistry