This is not the news that Time and other publications would like readers to believe it is, but it’s still worth noting (Time, 9/17/10).
A recently-published study done by U.C. Berkeley researchers at the behest of Kaiser Permanente shows once again that girls with absent fathers tend to reach puberty earlier than girls with fathers in their homes. What the Kaiser study adds to the existing research is that the effect is not a function of income or some factor secondary to income like poor diet. The Kaiser study found that early menarche occurs in white girls living in fatherless homes with family incomes over $50,000.
The study consisted of 444 girls who were first studied at ages 6 to 8. They and their family situations were then followed yearly to determine the onset of puberty and correlate it (or not) with the studied factors.
“The age at which girls are reaching puberty has been trending downward in recent decades, but much of the attention has focused on increased body weight as the primary culprit,” said the study’s lead author Julianna Deardorff, U.C. Berkeley assistant professor of maternal and child health. “The results from our study suggest that familial and contextual factors — independent of body mass index — have an important effect on girls’ pubertal timing.”
That’s in addition to an Australian study that found that the presence of older brothers in a girl’s home was correlated with later menarche. Other studies, for at least 10 years, have correlated father absence with the early occurrence of puberty.
The Time article seems desperate to find some reason other than the absence of fathers for the earlier onset of puberty. It’s very title suggests that father absence is really just one possibility among many for the early onset of puberty among girls. So it cites not only diet, but such oddities as exposure to light from computer screens as causes. Then there’s the idea that it has nothing to do with fathers but with a secondary effect – that single mothers making more than $50,000 aren’t around their daughters as much and therefore they mature earlier.
All of that might have some validity were it not for studies done of girls in third-world countries whose families earn far less than the relatively affluent girls in the Kaiser study. They too were found to experience earlier menarche than their peers with fathers in the home. And it’s a certainty that it wasn’t due to excessive light from the computer screen or mothers working long hours at high-paying jobs.
What the Time article also doesn’t bring up is that earlier sexual maturity tends to mean earlier sexual behavior. It coyly mentions “behavioral problems” among girls experiencing early puberty, but nothing about earlier sexual intercourse, pregnancy or childbearing – the old problem of “children having children.”
The Time article seems uncomfortable with the concept that girls do better in a number of ways when they have their dads around, but research, including this latest study, has shown for many years that fathers tend to have a protective effect on their daughters. There are clear policy implications to this, and they’re the same ones that arise from the countless other studies that demonstrate the importance of fathers to children.
The correlation of father absence with earlier puberty and childbearing has significance beyond the simple wellbeing of children, though. Because early childbearing often indicates child poverty, lower educational attainment, greater propensity for drug and alcohol use and involvement in crime, society generally has an interest in lowering the incidence of father absence in children’s lives.
When will policy makers get the message?