The Importance to Kids of Fathers’ Unique Parenting

January 25, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This continues yesterday’s post on Dr. Anna Manchin’s vital and highly informative article (Aeon, 1/17/19).  Put simply, it should be required reading for anyone with an interest in fathers, children, mothers, families, etc. 

To recap briefly, Manchin argues that fatherhood, the investment by males in their offspring, was critical, perhaps all-important, to our species’ evolutionary success?  That’s because our big-brain strategy for survival and our upright posture mean our children are born extremely immature.  They also come, with fairly rare exceptions, one at a time.  It also means they take an inordinate amount of time to reach sexual maturity.  So how’s a species like that to survive when infants and females were under constant threat of illness, accident or death?  Females had to wean their children far earlier than do our closest primate relatives, meaning that they renewed ovulation sooner and could produce additional offspring. 

That was all well and good, but who was going to care for all those kids?  Eventually, females began selecting as mates, those males who showed an interest in their offspring.  My guess is that those males happened to have the hormones that are present in females and that produce parenting behavior.  So the process of sexual selection produced males who cared for children.  As I’ve said many times before, we’re one of only about 5% of mammal species for which that is true.

But 500,000 years ago, our ancestors’ brains made another massive leap in size, and suddenly relying on female help alone was not enough. This new brain was energetically hungrier than ever before. Babies were born more helpless still, and the food – meat – now required to fuel our brains was even more complicated to catch and process than before. Mum needed to look beyond her female kin for someone else. Someone who was as genetically invested in her child as she was. This was, of course, dad.

Now, again as I’ve said before, those parenting hormones have receptors in different parts of the male brain than in the female brain.  That produces parenting behavior that’s markedly different between the sexes.  The fact has been noted too often to remember.  Mothers are more tender and in-focused, more verbal, etc., while fathers are more physical and tend to engage their babies outwardly with the world in which they’ve come to inhabit.

That brings us to Machin’s thoughts on paternal parenting.

[Rough-and tumble play] is highly physical with lots of throwing up in the air, jumping about and tickling, accompanied by loud shouts and laughter. It is crucial to the father-child bond and the child’s development for two reasons: first, the exuberant and extreme nature of this behaviour allows dads to build a bond with their children quickly; it is a time-efficient way to get the hits of neurochemicals required for a robust bond, crucial in our time-deprived Western lives where it is still the case that fathers are generally not the primary carer for their children. Second, due to the reciprocal nature of the play and its inherent riskiness, it begins to teach the child about the give and take of relationships, and how to judge and handle risk appropriately; even from a very young age, fathers are teaching their children these crucial life lessons…

[H]ormonal analysis has shown that, when it comes to interacting with each other, fathers and children get their peaks in oxytocin, indicating increased reward, from playing together. The corresponding peak for mothers and babies is when they are being affectionate. So, again, evolution has primed both fathers and children to carry out this developmentally important behaviour together.

Children need their fathers for their parenting that tends to differ from that of their mothers.  Through their fathers, kids learn “about the give and take of relationships, and how to judge and handle risk appropriately.”  Needless to say, that’s necessary information if one is to navigate the world and human society effectively.

Now, I’ve written much about parent-child attachment.  Well, it turns out that children attach differently to Mom than to Dad.

Likewise, a father’s attachment to his child has evolved to be crucially different than a mother’s…  In all cases, having a strong attachment relationship acts as a secure base from which we can strike out and explore the world, safe in the knowledge we can always return to the focus of our attachment for affection and help. Where parent-child attachment is concerned, the attachment between a mother and her child is best described as exclusive, an inward-looking dyad based on affection and care. In contrast, a father’s attachment to his child has elements of affection and care, but it is based on challenge.

This crucial difference leads a father to turn his children’s faces outward, encouraging them to meet fellow humans, build relationships, and succeed in the world. And it is because of this special type of attachment that studies repeatedly show fathers in particular encouraging their offspring to get the most out of their learning. It is fathers who aid the development of appropriate social behaviour, and build a child’s sense of worth.

Stated another way, mothers’ way of parenting tends to instill the sense of security and self-worth that are indispensable to an emotionally healthy, productive life.  But not everyone in life is your mother.  Everyone else, from peers to teachers to employers to life partners, will demand a certain quality  of behavior from you and your life will be happier and better if you know how to interact appropriately with others.  Fathers are vital to conveying that knowledge.

As with the rest of her article, Machin’s closing is spot-on.

Looking back at our pool of knowledge from 10 years ago and comparing it to what we know today, my conclusion is this: we need to change the conversations we have about fathers. 

I know.  I and countless others have been trying to do just that for many, many years.  It turns out to not be such an easy task.

We need to broaden our spectrum of who we think dad is to include all the fathers who stick around, investing in their children’s emotional, physical and intellectual development, regardless of whether they live with their children or not. We need to discuss the dads who coach football, read bedtime stories, locate rogue school socks, and scare away the night-time monsters. Who encourage their children’s mental resilience, and scaffold their entry into our increasingly complex social world…

And by broadening this conversation and sharing our newfound knowledge, we empower fathers to be more involved with their children, something that benefits us all.  

Again, I’ve pointed this out many times.  When fathers are given their due, everyone comes out a winner.  Kids do because they maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, fathers because they step into their all-important role as Dad, mothers because they’re freed to contribute equally to the family income, society because we solve the multiple problems of fatherlessness and the public purse because we stop spending so much on endless programs to combat the toxic results of absent fathers.

Further, a father’s special role in preparing his child to enter the wider world outside the family – shaping emotional and behavioural development, teaching the rules of social behaviour and language, helping to build mental resilience by dealing with risk, confronting challenge and overcoming failure – is arguably more important than ever before, when we are beset by a crisis in adolescent mental health, and live in a world that operates on new social rules, shaped by our digital, online lives.

Indeed.  Thanks to Dr. Machin for her hugely important contribution to the public discourse on fathers and children.

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