Tech + Health

06.15.14

Do Hands-On Dads Raise Healthier Kids?

A new survey of the scientific literature gets at the question of how involved a dad should be in order for his offspring to survive and thrive.

In the introduction to his book Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, Paul Raeburn shares the questions he had when he and his second wife started having children. Raeburn had three children with his first wife, all of whom were adults by the time he started his second family. With the older kids, he felt like he’d relied on instinct and lore to guide his parenting philosophy. Inspired by the arrival of his second batch of kids, the science reporter reviewed the scientific literature on fatherhood to try to answer the questions, “What is it, exactly, that fathers do for their children? How much do fathers matter? And what, in turn, do children do for their fathers?” The resulting meta-analysis focuses on studies reaching back as far as the 1970s that cover everything from genetics to pregnancy, mouse parenting, childhood development, and sociological factors that influence the relationship between fathers and their kids.

Raeburn laments the lack of scientific research regarding fathers, whom he says were deemed irrelevant by scientists as well as parenting and child development experts until very recently. In every branch of study related to the family, he found that his searches for fatherhood yielded a fraction of the results he found while searching for studies on motherhood. The majority of the scientific literature about parenting and childhood didn’t even mention fathers at all, much less focus on them; and the scant amount of research that did consider fathers was locked behind paywalls in academic journals and therefore virtually inaccessible to the general public. The bulk of Raeburn’s book, then, is dedicated to presenting the most remarkable of those hidden studies about dads to the layperson, and arguing that the evidence suggests fathers do matter, in ways that conform to conventional wisdom as well as in some that may be surprising.

Raeburn is a science reporter, and much of what he does in this book is straightforward reporting. He doesn’t pull the Malcolm Gladwell move where he funnels the evidence toward his Big Theory, while keeping the reader engaged and amused with illustrative anecdotes. But even if, like me, you barely passed high school chemistry, the science will not completely go over your head or put you to sleep. You will get the gist of it.

The gist—at least the one I took away from the book—is perhaps best illustrated by the author’s explication of research conducted on two different species of mice. Kelly G. Lambert, a neuroscientist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, studies parenting behavior in lab animals. In research involving two kinds of mice, the deer mouse and the California mouse, Gilbert found that the two otherwise very similar species have developed completely different parenting strategies. Whereas the male deer mouse’s approach is closer to the “drive-through” fathering method practiced by rats, the California mouse dad is all in. He licks the baby mice, carries them around, and huddles over them—in short, Raeburn writes, “the fathers among California mice do everything for their children that mothers do.” Not only are the father California mouse’s atypical nurturing characteristics reflected in his behavior; Lambert’s research shows that the California mouse’s body chemistry and even his brain structure set him apart from the deadbeat deer mouse.

Earlier studies of the California mouse, in the field and in the lab, showed that when fathers were taken away from the nest, there was a significantly lower survival rate for the pups. The author of that study, David Gubernick, claims it was “the first demonstration in the wild that males were indeed necessary for offspring survival.” There was no parallel study done for the deer mice in the field, since the default status for deer mouse dads is MIA; but Lambert found that when she placed deer mice fathers with their pups in the lab, their brains did not show the same kind of changes that California mice did. “These fathers have the circuitry and the neurochemistry to behave like good fathers,” Raeburn explains. “But they don’t exploit that circuitry to take care of their pups.”

So why does one species of dads dote over their children while the other bolts? Lambert suggests that the evolution of the nurturing traits is all about the California mouse’s harsh environment: In order for the pups to thrive, someone has to keep them warm while Mom forages during the cold desert nights. The biological features of the “good dad” mouse are an adaptation to his surroundings: If dads don’t step up, their offspring suffer. And, as Lambert puts it: “It’s the same with humans. Is Dad bringing something to the table? It doesn’t have to be money; it can be social interactions, intellectual strategies, or enriching life in some way.” Like much of current research, her findings point out the false dichotomy of nature vs. nurture, and in instead illuminates the interplay between the two.

I’ve been a (mostly) stay-at-home dad for the past five years now, and I didn’t need to read what science has determined to be the effects that parenting has on male human brains, hormone levels, and behavior to know that it has fundamentally changed me: It has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Although the evidence is interesting—and plentiful in Raeburn’s book—these changes have been expressed much more poetically ever since poetic expression became a thing. I have to admit, though, that I was unaccountably comforted to read all the evidence Raeburn cited suggesting that a close bond with their father is beneficial to children in quantifiable ways as well. I say “unaccountably” because I have always been confident that full-on fathering was the right decision for my family. It’s just reassuring to have science on one’s side.

Although Raeburn does not impose an overarching ideology to bring together all the threads of research he presents, I can’t help but squeeze them into my own Unified Theory of Parenting and Life. As our environment—including economies and social structures—evolves, so does our behavior and biology; and that militates for less specialization based on gender. There are some things human evolution has so far precluded (e.g. male pregnancy and female World’s Strongest Man champions); but short of those, we can and should wade into what has been considered territory of the opposite sex, especially when it comes to raising our children.