When our young daughters first decided to play on top of our Honda minivan, parked in our driveway, my wife was worried. But to me, it seemed no less safe than chasing a ball that frequently ended up in the street. And they loved the height, the novelty, the danger. So I let them stay. They never fell. And with summer here, playing on the car is once again keeping them occupied for hours.
Now that I have read Paul Raeburn’s “Do Fathers Matter?,” I know that my comfort with more dangerous play – my willingness to let my daughters stand on top of a minivan – is a typically paternal trait. Dads roughhouse with children more, too. They also gain weight when their wives are pregnant and have an outsize effect on their children’s vocabulary. The presence of dads can delay daughters’ puberty. But older dads have more children with dwarfism and with Marfan syndrome.
In Raeburn’s book, there is plenty of good news for dads, and plenty of bad. A zippy tour through the latest research on fathers’ distinctive, or predominant, contributions to their children’s lives, “Do Fathers Matter?” is filled with provocative studies of human dads – not to mention a lot of curious animal experiments. But above all, Raeburn shows how little we know about the role of fathers, and how preliminary his book is. Its end is really a beginning, a prospectus for further research.
Raeburn writes that “as recently as a generation ago, in the 1970s, most psychologists” believed that “with regard to infants, especially, fathers were thought to have little or no role to play.” When it came to toddlers and older children, too, the great parenting theories of the 20th century placed fathers in the background.
When the pioneering researcher Michael E. Lamb became interested in the role of fathers, in the mid-1970s, “there wasn’t much evidence for the irrelevancy of fathers” – it was just assumed, Raeburn writes. And “there wasn’t a lot of data to suggest they were relevant, either.”
Now there is a growing, but still inadequate, interest in fathers’ influence. Some new research explains genetic and epigenetic links that are unique to fathers and their children, while other studies explore the impact of fathers’ presence or absence. In many studies, there is no clear divide between the biological and psychological: Being around dads affects children’s biology, which, in turn, affects their mental states, such as happiness, and their success in life.
Raeburn, a magazine writer and former chief science correspondent for the Associated Press, has contributed another entry to a category of books that has exploded in the last 20 years, in which a journalist compresses and enlivens scholarly articles, often mixing in reported anecdotes.
Raeburn’s modesty is a virtue; he has found the right style for the job. He writes clearly, untangling cause from effect, noting probabilities and inserting caveats. Preferring to claim too little rather than too much, he is an ideal guide to tricky, uncertain research in a nascent field.
Nascent but fascinating. Did you know that a healthy father can ease the impact of a mother’s depression on the children, while a depressed father is a risk factor for excessive crying in infants? That fathers can suffer from hormonal postpartum depression?
Or that fathers’ early involvement with their daughters leads to “a reduced risk of early puberty, early initiation of sex and teen pregnancy”? We’re not sure exactly why, but Bruce J. Ellis, of the University of Arizona, has noted that exposure to fathers’ pheromones can slow down pubertal development.
According to some research, fathers matter more than mothers in vocabulary development. One hypothesis is that moms, who spend more time with their children, know their kids’ vocabularies, and tailor their own word choice accordingly; dads, who know their kids less well, end up introducing new words.
Older fathers are more deeply involved with their children’s schools, more likely to attend ballet classes or know their children’s friends. On the other hand, the children of older fathers seem to have stronger genetic predispositions to schizophrenia and autism – so much so that older dads should get genetic counseling, Raeburn argues, just as older moms hear about the risk of Down syndrome.
On yet another hand, the children of older dads are taller and slimmer.
As these examples suggest, father research cuts across disciplines, and Raeburn excels at mapping the twistiness of the road ahead.
Raeburn makes a powerful case that fathers matter. Children can grow up happy and successful with just a mother, or with two moms. But we should attend to the benefits that fathers are more likely to bring.
After all, my wife would never have let the girls on top of the minivan.