Monday, June 23, 2014

Do Fathers Matter?

A new book on dads has gotten huge publicity, such as this NY Post review:
Paul Raeburn is the author of “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked.” ...

Some of fathers’ contributions are surprising. One might guess, for example, that mothers have more influence than fathers on their children’s language development. Despite the growing number of women in the workforce, mothers still spend more time with children in many families than fathers do.

But that turns out not to be the case. Lynne Vernon-Feagans of the University of North Carolina, who studies language development, has found that when it comes to vocabulary, fathers matter more than mothers.

In middle-class families, she found that parents’ overall level of education — and the quality of child care — were both related to children’s language development. But fathers made unique contributions to children’s language development that went beyond the contributions of education and child care.

When fathers used more words with their children during play, children had more advanced language skills a year later. And that is likely also linked with later success in school.
The Boston Globe reviews:
If you’re tempted to both hate and mock a literary subgenre, the growing library of daddy lit is among the lowest hanging fruit. Among the titles I’ve perused since becoming a dad several months ago are “Dadditude: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad’’; “Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads’’; and “What to Expect When Your Wife is Expanding.’’ What’s next? “Godzilla: Confessions of a Dinosaur Dad’’? “The Hangover Guys’ Guide to Infant Care’’?

The more interesting question may be why we are witnessing such a proliferation of dad-centric guides and memoirs. Could it simply be that the collective dad is trying to say that his role has evolved beyond the commuting hunter-gatherer?

In Paul Raeburn’s “Do Fathers Matter,’’ the science journalist addresses societal prejudices against dads, from their portrayal as inept buffoons in popular media to the long-held concept that attachment only exists between mothers and their children.
The book claims to have lots of science facts, such as in this Psychology Today review:
Here are some examples of what a reader encounters:

Male rats in Australia that were given high-fat diets and became obese had offspring that were more likely to have metabolic disease, including diabetes.
While the Y chromosome once had some 800 genes in common with the X chromosome, they now share just 19. Yet the loss of genes on the Y chromosome occurred many millions of years ago, suggesting we shouldn’t fear last few genes being flushed down some contemporary evolutionary toilet.
Family interventions intended to increase paternal involvement were most effective when targeting fathers and mothers together. This is because, as researchers note, “the single most powerful predictor of fathers’ engagement with their children is the quality of the men’s relationship with the child’s mother, regardless of whether the couple is married, divorced, separated, or never married.”
In captivity, a long-term study with rhesus monkeys (a species in which males do not provide paternal care in the wild) found that when infants were removed from mothers and hand-fed by humans, fathers became effective caregivers and played more with the infants than mothers.
A captive study of voles found that pups raised without a father displayed more anxiety and less activity and social behavior than those raised with a father.
Children born to older fathers are at greater risk of various developmental disorders, including autism, schizophrenia and cleft lip and palate. The age-related increase in mutations known to occur in males may underlie those observations, prompting Raeburn to ask: “The female biological clock is talked about so often that it’s become a sitcom cliché. Why do we hear so little about these biological clocks in men?”
The NY Times reviews:
In Mr. 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. (You’ll learn about blackbirds’ vasectomies.) But above all, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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. Freud famously exalted, or damned, the mother for her influence. John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which he developed beginning in the 1940s, focused on the mother or “mother-figure.”

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, Mr. Raeburn writes. And “there wasn’t a lot of data to suggest they were relevant, either.”
I had a family court evaluation from a quack psychologist named Ken Perlmutter, and when he was asked under oath whether he had any actual relevant expertise, he said that he studied Bowlby's attachment theory in grad school.

That theory is mostly rubbish, but a lot of psychologists like Perlmutter consider it the most scientific thing in the field.

The book says:
As recently as a generation ago, in the 1970s, most psychologists and other “experts” had an easy answer to that question: not much. With regard to infants, especially, fathers were thought to have little or no role to play. In 1976, Michael E. Lamb, a developmental psychologist and pioneer in research on fathers, wrote that the emphasis on mothers in infants’ development was so one-sided that it seemed as if “the father is an almost irrelevant entity in the infant’s social world.” For decades, psychologists had “assumed that the mother-infant relationship is unique and vastly more important than any contemporaneous, or indeed any subsequent, relationships.” The attachment to this nurturing and protective adult was supposed to give the infant an evolutionary advantage—even Darwin had endorsed this exclusive focus on the mother, the experts claimed, and who was going to argue with Darwin?
It is great that this book is exposing actual science to a wider audience. I am not sure about the relevance of animal studies, as paternal roles vary widely in nature.

I also wonder about his personal conclusions from the data. In an interview, Raeburn is asked for recommendations, and he explains that he helps his 4yo daughter by letting her cheat at a board game called Chutes and Ladders. Supposedly this follows from research that dads should be flexible with kids. Seems goofy to me.

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