Until fairly recently, most of the scientific research about parental influence on children focused on mothers and left out dads. But recent studies have shown that fathers have an important role in the development of children — from conception into adulthood. Award-winning science writer Paul Raeburn highlights all this new research in his book Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We Overlooked. In this podcast, I talk to Paul about some of the research he highlights in his book.
- What makes human fathers unique from other mammalian fathers
- Why there’s so little research about the influence fathers have on children
- What a hunter-gatherer tribe in South Africa can teach us about fatherhood
- A man’s “biological clock” when it comes to having children
- How the health of the father can affect the long-term health of his child even before the child is born
- How a man’s hormones change when his wife gets pregnant and when she delivers their child
- Why roughhousing with his kids is one of the best things a father can do
- And much more!
Do Fathers Matter? is a fascinating and entertaining read. I gained a deeper appreciation for my own father and a heightened awareness of the influence I have on my own kids. The research Paul highlights in the book provided a much-needed reminder that my kids are always watching me, and how I behave will affect not just them, but even my grandkids. Get this book if you’re a dad or plan on becoming a dad someday.
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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. So this Sunday is Father’s Day, so I thought it would be great to do a podcast dedicated to dads. My guest today published a book where he wanted to answer the question, or figure out the answer to the question, do fathers matter? His name is Paul Raeburn. He is a science writer at the AP News, and what Paul found when he started answering this question is that there isn’t a lot of research out there, scientific research, about the roles fathers play in their child’s development.
There’s a ton of research and information about the role of the mother, right, from conception all the way to adulthood, but there isn’t that much out there about dads. He wanted to figure out why that is, and then he wanted to remedy that and highlight what the research is saying, the importance that fathers play in their child’s life. Today on the podcast, we’re discussing “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” with Paul Raeburn, so let’s do this.
Paul Raeburn, welcome to the show.
Paul: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Brett: Your book is called “Do Fathers Matter,” and one thing you discovered when you were researching this book about whether fathers matter or not is that there really wasn’t a lot of research out there about fatherhood. Why is that, and have things gotten better?
Paul: Well, yeah. Why is that? Good question. I mean, I don’t have a scientific answer for why fathers have been overlooked. I used that in the subtitle of the book, the parent that science has overlooked. I think it’s just a question of tradition. You know, we … for so long, the mother in most families was home all day, taking care of the kids. The father was away all day at work, at the office or the mill or the factory, and so it seemed clear enough that mothers had the primary role with kids, based on all the time with the kids. They taught the kids how to tie their shoes and all those things. Maybe Dad showed up a few years later to teach kids how to play baseball, but otherwise, most of the tricky stuff fell to moms.
So if you look at that scenario in lots of families, you’d say, “Well, moms must be important for kids.” I mean, look at all the things they do, but I think that was just an accident of our economic system in the way things worked out, that fathers were away, mothers were home. It turns out both parents are important, equally important. I wouldn’t argue that fathers are more important, but the mere fact that at least traditionally they were out of the home during the day doesn’t make them less important.
Brett: Yeah, I thought it was interesting. One of the … you highlight this research that you found. It’s from the early part of the 20th century where an observer was watching a mother interact with the child, and then the note was, “Mother handed baby off to father. Observation ended.”
Paul: End of experiment, right?
Brett: End of experiment.
Paul: It was all about the mother, right, and then the mother hands the baby to father and they say, “Okay, well, there’s nothing interesting going to happen here. Let’s turn off the video recorder. We’re done.”
Brett: Yeah. Have things gotten better? Have the researchers started looking into the influence of fathers on children, and also the influence of children on fathers?
Paul: Well, the answer is yes. Now, it’s interesting, the way science perceives. I think we all naively believe that, when scientists find out interesting things, we all become aware of that. You know, there’s lots of science and medical news in the papers and online and all over the place, so we figure that when interesting things are discovered, we’re probably going to hear about them, but that’s not really the way it works. It turns out there are pockets, all kind of pockets in science, where people do research and the public never really finds out about it, and that’s exactly what happened with the fatherhood research.
When I started working on the book, I wasn’t sure if there was enough research on fathers to fill a book, for starters. As it turns out, I could have filled two or three, I think, but I didn’t know that, and the reason was that there’s a group of people. It’s a growing group, but it started off as a small group in the late ’70s, early ’80s, who thought fathers might be important and started doing research. They mostly talked to each other. They published their findings in journals that reporters don’t read, even science reporters don’t read, and so this body of research piled up. It’s a gold mine for me, when I discovered it and knew I had something important to write about, because most of this is new material, even if some of it has been discovered a while ago. I don’t quite know why that happens.
I’ll give you one funny story. One of the things that people know about fathers research is that fathers are more likely to engage in horseplay, what the scientists call rough‑and‑tumble play. Fathers are more likely than moms to get down on the floor and wrestle around, you know, and be kind of rough in a good‑natured way with their kids. This doesn’t come as a surprise to us, but somebody had to discover that. Somebody had to watch fathers and watch mothers and figure that out, and that was a guy named Michael Lamb, who is in England now but spent a lot of time in Washington.
It was that situation we were talking about. The babies would be studied, and children would be studied with their mothers. Nobody looked at fathers, and he said, “Well, why don’t we just try looking at fathers to see what we discover?” He discovered this notion that fathers play very differently with their kids, much more open‑ended and so forth, and published a paper on it in 1977 or ’78, and that was the beginning. You know, he’s sort of the father of fatherhood research, if you will, and that was the beginning of people starting to study fathers. They said, “Hey, this is interesting. We didn’t expect this,” and others started to jump in, very gradually over the ’80s and 1990s, and then in the last decade or so, things have started to boom.
Brett: Okay. I love how you start off the book kind of like a progression here, and you start off comparing and contrasting human fathers with fathers in the animal kingdom. What makes human fathers different from most male fathers in the animal kingdom, and why is that? Why is there a difference there, and I guess the question would be are there any other animals that act sort of like human fathers, in a way?
Paul: I think first I should make the case that … you know, why it’s interesting to look at animals. In many respects, we are very much like other mammals, you know, primates, chimpanzees, gorillas, but even other kinds of mammals. You know, a lot of scientific research is done on mice, and one of the people I talked to for the book said, “You know, if you take a mouse’s brain and flatten it, cut it, sort of dissect it and flatten it out, put it on a piece of paper towel, it looks exactly like a human brain if you prepared it the same way, except a lot smaller, obviously, but it has all the same areas and the same anatomical sections.”
We’re very much like animals in a lot of ways, and that’s why we do so much research on animals. When it comes to fathering, though, we’re very different from most animals. Among mammals, who are our closest relatives, about 95 percent of mammal fathers never see their children, or have very little to do with them. You know, they do their one thing. They make their one essential contribution to the process of having children and then disappear, and so it’s very unusual for mammals to … mammalian fathers to take care of their kids. There are a few monkeys that do it, a few other species, and of course, humans.
There’s one possible exception with this kind of obscure whale, but aside from that, as far as we know, human parents spend more time with their children, spend more time raising their children than any other animal. You would say that we spend, say, 18 years, raising our kids to adulthood. That’s longer than any other species spends preparing its offspring to go out in the world and fend for themselves. This is a big job, and when you see what a big job it is and how unusual it is in the animal kingdom, it begins to make sense that we would have been designed and families would have been designed in a way that both fathers and mothers contribute, because it’s an awfully big job for one person to do alone, as many single parents will be happy to tell you, actually.
Brett: Just the fact that human beings take such a long time to develop? That’s why, for the most part, fathers stick around?
Paul: Yeah, that’s … that’s the presumption. You know, the reason we take so long to develop is that we have these big brains, which are hard to fit, coming out of Mom, and so human infants are born sort of earlier in the developmental process, so that they can fit out the exit path with their big brains. They do a lot more developing after they’re born than some other animals. Maybe that was too much anatomy for you, but there you go.
Brett: Well, so you talked about the difference between humans and animals, so generally fathers stick around more or stick around longer. Then you talk about the difference between fatherhood from culture to culture amongst humans. How does father involvement differ from culture to culture?
Paul: Well, I think it’s safe to say that in all cultures, fathers have an important role to play. There are probably a few obscure exceptions somewhere, but it’s certainly true that in Western cultures and even in a lot of non‑Western cultures, fathers play a very important role.
One group that I write about in the book was quite interesting, and these are people who probably are the best fathers in the world. They’re called Aka pygmies … that’s A‑k‑a, the Aka people, and they live in Central Africa in a forest area that … where it would be very difficult for us to survive and to find food, but a place that they’ve lived in for a long, long time and they know how to live there. And these fathers, you know, in the course of a day … they’re hunters and gatherers, and in the course of a day, they are rarely more than an arm’s reach from their children.
The wives and children go with the fathers on the hunt, and they go with them to gather fruits and nuts and berries and so forth, and the kids are just with them all the time. They learn, you know, how Dad works, what he does for a living. I mean, think about American kids and ask them what their dad does for a living, and how many of them, you know, have any good sense of what’s going on? If Dad’s a lumberjack or a fisherman or something, they might have a pretty good idea of what’s happening, but for all the millions of us who head off to offices, do our kids really know what we do? It’s not easy to tell them what we do when it mostly involves typing at a computer screen and moving pieces of paper and digital information around.
These kids grow up knowing exactly what their mothers and fathers do, how the family works together, and the fathers … one of the interesting points, I thought … evenings, after a hard day gathering food, the fathers, like a lot of other fathers here and elsewhere, will gather to drink some palm wine and talk over the day, just the way workers here might stop and have a beer after work and chat about what went on in the office during the day, except for the Aka people, they take their kids with them.
The kids will be riding on their hips while they’re talking over shop and business and what happened, and the kids … you know, I’m afraid I have more anatomy for you here, I guess, but if the kids have to go to the bathroom while the father’s holding him, that’s fine. The fathers just wipe off the kids and themselves with a palm leaf and relax and enjoy themselves, so these … you know, the situation is very different from our situation here.
I describe the Aka people and how they live in the book because I think there’s a lot to be learned from that. The researcher who studies them has studied them for 20 or 30 years, and he actually ultimately built himself a house over there, and he and his … I think he had seven children … spend a lot of time over there. He was so impressed with these people that he just wanted to live there, basically.
Brett: Were there any theories about why fatherhood developed in this way in this particular culture?
Paul: You know, I don’t know if we know exactly why that happened, but once it started to develop that way, it was reinforced I think by the benefits, which are the kids are prepared, you know, to take over the hunting and gathering chores when they become of age because they’ve grown up with that, they’ve been involved with it. There are a lot of reasons why that can be a good thing. You know, it’s not unlike what used to happen on American farms, where kids would grow up on the farm. They knew how to do all the chores on the farm. They knew what their parents did because they saw them all day, and then when they got older, they could take over the farm. Now, we are a long, long way, most of us in America, from that kind of situation today.
Brett: Let’s talk about, get into like the nitty‑gritty about the benefits that fathers have. I thought it was interesting that you started off talking about how a father has an influence on his child even before the child is conceived.
Brett: I know people say, “Well, okay. Yeah, of course, genetics,” but it’s just the health of the father, right?
Paul: It’s the health of the father. It’s some kind of strange and unexpected connection between fathers. You know, from the book I read about involvement of fathers during pregnancy, now, you would think that during pregnancy, a father would be not involved. I mean, what’s he going to do? You know, the action is all inside Mom. He hasn’t met this creature yet. The fetus is still developing. How could he probably have any effect on the fetus?
Here’s what happens. Not only does he have an effect, he has a huge effect. If the father’s not around during his partner’s pregnancy, those kids, those infants, have nearly four times the death rate of infants whose fathers were involved with the pregnancy. Fathers who are depressed during the pregnancy … again, before they’ve met the child, before the child has been born … if fathers are depressed during pregnancy, that increases the risk their children will suffer from depression, perhaps late in life.
The other thing is, there’s a strange connection with fathers’ hormones. We know that mothers go through all kind of hormonal changes to prepare them for pregnancy. When they are pregnant, they prepare them to carry the fetus and so forth. It turns out fathers go through all kinds of hormonal changes too. They experience a decline in testosterone. They experience a rise in a hormone called prolactin, which is associated with nursing in women. I don’t know any fathers who are nursing yet, but somehow they have this nursing hormone that’s on the rise during pregnancy, so all these things are happening. There’s a huge connection between fathers and the developing fetus, before it’s even developed to the point where it can be born.
Brett: What could fathers do during this time to create an environment that’s most advantageous for his child and for the mother?
Paul: Well, in a narrow sense, be with the mother. You know, be closely involved with the mother, spend time with the mother, because that’s what seems to produce these changes in the fathers and the better outcomes for the fetus and the child that’s born. Beyond that, you know, there are other good reasons to spend time with the mother, because pregnancy is difficult, and because they want you to get up and get them a glass of water. There’s a lot of things going on. I don’t mean to trivialize it, but obviously they do a lot to support mothers, which is a good thing. If they do that, then these slightly more mysterious things involving their children and their hormones will also take place too.
Brett: This question about the statistic about infant mortality, does that even apply here in the West, or is it across cultures, across socioeconomic …
Paul: Yes. That is in the West, actually. I don’t know if we know the figures. I don’t know the figures for developing countries and so forth, but that is in the West, even with our good medical care. You know, and you would see evidence of this in poor communities compared to wealthier communities, not that many poorer families are very close families and so forth, but in families that are subject to economic disruption and so forth, that’s where you may see more problems, and this is one of the reasons for that.
Brett: A lot of talk is given to women’s age and how that can affect the health of the child. The older a woman gets before she gets pregnant, her chances of having a child with Down’s syndrome increases, other health risks increase as well, and there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the age of the father. I guess there’s research coming out that the age of the father can have an effect on a child’s health as well.
Paul: That’s right.
Brett: What’s the research saying on that?
Paul: Yeah, this was another very surprising thing to me as I started to research the book. One of the things we know about genetics, maybe the first thing we know about genetics, is that as women get older, they have an increased likelihood of having a child with Down’s syndrome. Many, many men and women know about this now, think about it, worry about it if they’re getting older and they haven’t had children yet. It’s just become a well‑known fact.
What’s far less known is that the children of older fathers have an increased risk of having Down’s syndrome. The children of older fathers have an increased risk of having schizophrenia, a very serious mental illness. Now, the risk of schizophrenia in any child is about 1 percent. The risk of schizophrenia in the child of an older father is 2 or 3 percent, so it’s still small, but it’s a lot bigger than it is for younger fathers. There are a whole series of obscure genetic anomalies and illnesses that are more common in the children of older fathers.
Brett: What’s going on there? Is it, as the father gets older, something’s … I mean, is there more mutations in the sperm that’s going on, or why are there problems with older parents?
Paul: You’re on the right track, and it was a bit of a mystery at first. As you probably know, a woman is born with all the eggs that she’s going to have in her lifetime, so those are sitting there waiting until she’s in her 20s or 30s or whatever it might be, to be used. Fathers manufacture sperm fresh all the time. We say as mothers get older, those eggs are getting older, and maybe that explains why there are more risks associated with older mothers, but sperm is being made new all the time. It doesn’t get older as the father gets older, so what’s going on?
It turns out that the problem is in something called spermatogonia. These are the structures that manufacture sperm. What happens is those sperm factories get older as men age. The thinking is not necessarily there are more … well, that there are genetic anomalies or errors that are introduced as these factories get older and a little less accurate, and that that results in genetic changes in the sperm that increase the risk. You had half of it right, and if I’d left you alone, you probably would have got there.
Brett: This raises a question. I mean, doctors often talk to women who are getting older that are still planning to have a family to, “Okay, well, you need to think about the potential consequences of that.” Are they doing that same sort of thing with fathers yet?
Paul: No. It may shock you find out they’re not.
Brett: Why is that?
Paul: Well, here’s … there are two reasons, one understandable, one not so understandable, and I blasted genetic counselors in the book for not paying more attention to this. I talked to some genetic counselors who said, “Well, you know, there’s nothing you can do about the schizophrenia or there’s nothing you can do about these risks. Why worry people?” You could say the same thing about mothers. There’s nothing you can do about a lot of those risks either, and yet we tell mothers what their risks are.
Of course, one thing you can do, even … you know, with some of these things, there’s an increased risk. Some parents might choose to terminate the pregnancy. Now, I don’t think most people would recommend that, but that is one way to eliminate some of these risks, yet many of us wouldn’t do that, for all the reasons we know about. My feeling is that men should know about this, whether they can do anything about it or not, and certainly younger men can know about it so they can plan their lives, and maybe decide to have children earlier than they might have. That I think is a scandal, that men don’t find out about this.
The other reason that they don’t, that’s a little bit easier to understand, is that men don’t have occasion to see genetic counselors until their wives are already pregnant, or their partners are pregnant. We don’t … you know, women will see a gynecologist. They may get some advice about family planning or about having a family and so forth, so they have some exposure to that. Men don’t have that, so the genetic counselors who might be willing to tell men about these risks don’t have any interactions with the men.
On the other hand, back to the negative side of it, recently I was at a wedding, actually, and somebody I met there was a genetic counselor, and I said, “Oh, you must know about the risks associated with older fathers,” and she said, “No, what risks are you talking about?” There’s an education problem too. I think that, as I say, some of this is understandable. Some of this is a reflection of the fact that many people still think fathers don’t contribute as much to children even in a genetic standpoint.
Brett: Interesting. Men do have a biological clock, to an extent?
Paul: Men have a biological clock. There’s no question about that anymore. It’s not a … it’s not a cocktail party joke, it’s the real thing.
Brett: Okay. Let’s move on beyond conception. What role … how can … what does the research say that … how the fathers affect a child during childhood? What can fathers do? What do they contribute to a child during childhood to help with their development?
Paul: There are a lot of things they do, and I’ll give you a couple of for‑instances. I have lots of them in the book, but a couple to give you an idea of the kinds of things. We talked a little bit about play and the importance of the way fathers play with kids. It turns out play is a major thing. Children whose fathers play with them, read to them, go on school outings, help care for them and so forth … all of which we might think are the normal things that a father ought to do or would want to do … those kids have fewer behavioral problems in their early school years. They are less likely to become delinquent as adolescents, they are less likely to get involved in criminal activity, so this goes for years later. This is a long‑lasting thing.
Another interesting thing with fathers and kids, just one thing but it’s an important thing, and it represents the kinds of things that happen, is that fathers make unique contributions to language development in kids. You might think … I mean, in many families, mothers still spend more time with kids than fathers do, so you might think that mothers have a bigger role of language development than fathers. Well, mothers engage in what’s called “motherese,” that kind of language like, “Oh, good morning, how did you sleep, how are you doing, you look so cute this morning,” and et cetera, et cetera. It really should be called “parentese,” because lots of fathers do it too. I’ve found myself doing it many times myself, to my kids, and I’ve seen lots of other fathers do it too.
In any case, you might think that mothers have more influence on kids’ language development because they spend more time with them. Well, not true. Some research at the University of North Carolina looked at mothers and fathers and kids’ language ability, and they found that when fathers used more words with children during play, the children had more advanced language skills a year later and probably better success in school even later.
What we think is happening is that mothers, because they spend more time with the kids, know how to tune their language to sort of meet what the kid knows. Fathers, who may be a little less in tune with what words a child knows or doesn’t know, tend to use more words simply because they don’t know what wouldn’t be understood, and that stretches kids and pulls them along, so they develop more quickly.
You know, if you have better language skills before you go to school, you’re going to do better in school. It’s going to be easier to learn to read, a whole series of things, and this is something fathers do without knowing it, but again, it goes back to what we said before. The fathers have to spend time with the kids, they have to talk to the kids, be involved with the kids, and they can give the kids an incredible gift just by doing things they probably want to do anyway.
Brett: Interesting. Sort of related to that, the verbal development. Besides the rough‑and‑tumble physical play, you also mentioned research showing that fathers tend to be a little more rough‑and‑tumble with the way they talk to their kids. There’s a lot of joking and teasing that’s playful.
Paul: Right, more open‑ended. Exactly.
Brett: Yeah, but that’s beneficial for the child in the long run because it sort of allows them to learn adaptability, resilience, et cetera.
Paul: That’s right, in lots of ways, and adaptability and resilience is one of the key things. Fathers are more likely than mothers to jump out from behind the couch and startle kids, or at least this father is, if I feel like doing that sort of thing. You know, it actually turns out that’s not a trivial thing, because that kind of play helps kids get used to unusual or unexpected social situations.
They’ve actually tracked kids over time and found that kids who engage in a lot of that kind of play with their fathers are more socially adept as kids and even more socially adept as adults. If you’re the charming, suave, sophisticated conversationalist that I’ve heard about, you probably have a lot to thank your father for.
Brett: The question is, are fathers necessary in the long run? That’s sort of the question of your book. What conclusion did you come to, after all the research you culled through?
Paul: Actually, an early draft of the book was called “Are Fathers Necessary.” We changed it to “Do Fathers Matter,” and the reason is that the short answer is fathers are not necessary. Okay, they’re not necessary. It’s the word that’s important there. Lots of single mothers can raise happy and healthy kids. Single dads can raise happy kids, all kinds of combinations. There’s lots of evidence showing that gay families raise happy and healthy kids, and so fathers are not necessary.
I have a lot of friends who are single mothers, and I made sure they all understood that I didn’t say they were doomed to raise horrible children because there was no father in the house. Quite the opposite, but fathers do contribute a lot. They’re not necessary, but they absolutely matter, if you can follow the distinction there. They’re very important and they contribute a lot.
Brett: Out of all the research you did, is there one thing that fathers who are listening right now can do to have the biggest positive impact on their children?
Paul: I would say follow your instincts. Play with your kids, spend time with them, engage. Don’t just spend time with them, engage with them. An important one is listen to them. If you want to play Monopoly and they want to play Candy Land, play Candy Land. Engage, and treat them like the people that they are. They’re smaller than us and they know less, but they’re pretty smart. They’re as smart as us, and they’re just ready to soak it all in, and fathers can supply a lot of that for them as well as mothers.
Brett: Fantastic. Well, Paul Raeburn, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Paul: Yeah, my pleasure, absolutely.
Brett: Our guest today was Paul Raeburn. He’s the author of the book, “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked.” You can find that on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website, and until next time, to all you fathers out there, happy Father’s Day, and stay manly.