“Do Fathers Matter?: What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked” (Scientific American/FSG), by Paul Raeburn
From the tiniest microbe or fragment of DNA to the origins of the universe, it sometimes feels as if every subject generates a vast tide of scientific studies and that virtually nothing escapes detailed scrutiny.
But veteran science writer Paul Raeburn noticed an oversight: the role of fathers in parenting.
In “Do Fathers Matter?” Raeburn tells how until fairly recently, scholars, parenting experts and pop culture have overlooked the importance of fathers. In the 1970s, some experts even suggested that fathers were “an almost irrelevant entity” in an infant’s world — but did so without really studying father/child interactions. A 2013 Clorox ad proclaimed that “Like dogs or other house pets, new dads are filled with good intentions but lacking in judgment and fine motor skills.” (The ad was later withdrawn.)
Raeburn, a father himself, discovered that good scientific studies told a different story: “When we bother to look for the father’s impact, we find it — always,” noted one researcher. Passages like that make “Do Fathers Matter?” a valuable, compelling book for fathers, mothers, grandparents and parents-to-be — and perhaps even for their children.
“Do Fathers Matter?” uncovers a trove of good research about fathers and parenting. In the Aka tribe of Africa , fathers spend 47 percent of their days holding their infant children or keeping them within arm’s reach. The Aka fathers sing to their children, play with them and do the equivalent of diaper duty.
And while psychologists had known that a mother’s depression during pregnancy can increase depression in children, it turns out that a depressed father can have the same negative impact, from genetic input or from his moods affecting the mother.
Studies had also shown that the experience of motherhood actually changes mothers’ brains in the first few months after giving birth, and Raeburn found that when researchers looked at fathers, they also found significant brain changes — but not exactly the same as those in mothers.
Raeburn doesn’t knock single parents or same-sex couples, noting that they can raise healthy, successful children, too (such as the current U.S. president). But he firmly points out that there is still far too much anti-father bias in society. For example, a 2012 family law newsletter from the National Organization for Women linked to a website that lists “myths” about family. “Myth” number one was that “a father’s involvement is crucial for the well-being of a child.”
British researcher Michael Lamb notes that negative stereotypes about fathers can have consequences. “Fathers can hardly be expected to maintain a belief in their importance when they are continually being told of their irrelevance, other than as economic supporters.”
Raeburn, a former Associated Press science editor, concludes by noting that other companies are producing ads that portray fathers in a positive light. Raeburn also notes that reading all the research on fatherhood helped open his eyes to better ways to be a parent, and that’s a priceless lesson that makes “Do Fathers Matter?” an important addition to parenting literature.