Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked
In a world where many children grow up without one parent or the other, it is perceived as ill-mannered to ask a question like the title of Paul Raeburn’s book: Do Fathers Matter? Many people dismiss this question as irrelevant, not worth asking, or even offensive.
To illustrate this point, journalist Raeburn begins his survey of the social and behavioral sciences regarding fathers with a striking anecdote. He was attending a writers’ conference and making conversation with another participant. When he told the woman the title of his book, she responded, “Well, of course they don’t” (15). As a single mother, she may have felt threatened by what Raeburn was learning about the importance of fathers.
In fact, Raeburn convincingly argues that fathers do matter to their children. Motivated in part by his own experience of fatherhood, he wanted to know more about this fundamental truth. At the same time, at various times in the book the reader senses Raeburn’s discomfort with the possible implications of this research. If fathers really are so important, it follows that intentionally depriving a child of a father is wrong. Raeburn is not quite ready to say that, even while he points out the facts about what a father’s presence gives to his children.
Raeburn begins his study of human fatherhood by looking at other mammals as well as other cultures. He notes that unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, “There is no example of a human society in which fathers do not help raise the children” (19). He suggests that one of the reasons this is the case is that human children need significant help to survive. Raeburn notes the work of the anthropologist Barry Hewlett with a group of pygmies in the Congo, among whom fathers are extremely active in infant and child care. “They show us that fathers can—and will—do more in the right circumstances” (26). When societies are structured in such a way that fathers are expected to do more, they do so. In the West, Raeburn argues, time with dad is seen as playtime, whereas in a number of other cultures, “quantity” time is valued in fatherhood, in other words, even if the child does not have dad’s undivided attention, he is present (26).
On the subject of genes and inheritance, Raeburn notes studies that show that the diet, habits, and environment of the father can alter even the genes that he passes on to his children. He also explains a number of studies about how the father affects and is affected by pregnancy and genetics. One notable fact for married readers: “The single most powerful predictor of the fathers’ engagement with their children is the quality of the men’s relationship with the child’s mother” (89). This is a great reminder that men and women should prioritize their relationship with one another as husband and wife even once children come along.
Raeburn uses studies of mice, monkeys, and other animals to illustrate that when males are given more responsibility for their offspring, both father and children are better off. Time spent with their infant, for example, changes the brains of fathers as well as mothers. Physically, fathers are different than non-fathers. Parts of the brain related to stress and brain hormones related to bonding were active in mouse “dads” and not in a control group, for example (102). Scientists also discovered that fathers are often preoccupied, almost “obsessed” with their child from the 8th month of pregnancy until birth, frequently experiencing “intrusive thoughts” about problems that could occur (131). And children whose fathers are more actively involved tend to develop stronger language skills, have more courage, and are better able to adjust to the unexpected. Much of this is believed to come from the way that fathers play with their children, which tends to be less protective and more “risky.” Raeburn notes, “Fathers’ unpredictability helps children learn to be brave in difficult situations or when meeting new people” (149).
Research on teenagers highlights the often-noted fact that absent fathers can lead to an earlier onset of puberty and earlier sexual activity in teenage girls. Effects on boys are not as clear, but teen boys are less likely to “engage in delinquent behavior” if the father is at home (222). Raeburn notes that all teenagers need to be aware of their parents’ acceptance of them, and this seems to be even stronger in relationships with the father. “The influence of father’s rejection can be greater than that of mothers,” he writes (179).
Raeburn also examines the effects of older fatherhood, which is more common today. Much is said about a woman’s biological clock, but since men are physically capable of fathering children for their entire adulthood, less has been said about theirs. There is increasing evidence, however, that a man’s age does affect his children genetically and increases the chances for certain disorders like autism or schizophrenia. Men and women have the healthiest children in their twenties, and this is fairly indisputable (201). There are about twenty problems that have been linked to advanced paternal age, and women whose partners are over 35 have three times as many miscarriages (187). Raeburn notes that sperm are more vulnerable to genetic damage than eggs are, since they are constantly being copied (190). This section is where the book veers most from a Catholic view, suggesting that it may be better to avoid children altogether if the risks of disorder are high. “Termination” is given as an option in case of Down Syndrome or other genetic disorders. Ironically, the interviewee from the American College of Medical Genetics says that it’s important for parents to have all this information because it “influences the health of someone whom nobody else can speak up for—the child” (200). It is impossible to understand how “speaking up” for a child would mean aborting them.
Raeburn writes about what fathers do in his final chapter, noting the great changes that historical shifts have made in family relations. “For most of human history, fathers were responsible for protecting their children and for teaching them the things they needed to know to survive and prosper” (212). Work is now almost always away from the family, and both men and women in 2012 are working more hours than in 1965 (213). Americans also work more than almost any other modern society, and the U.S. is one of the only countries without guaranteed paid maternity/paternity leave (214). Work-family conflicts are now common for both men and women, with both expected to earn money outside the home and keep the home running. Raeburn also notes that despite expectations of shared parenting, often women take on a larger role than men, and both parents find it much more difficult than they thought it would be.
Overall, Do Fathers Matter? was a good read and a conversation-starter. Men may appreciate learning how their fathers have impacted them, and how they in turn may impact future generations. Women may also be encouraged not to overlook the effect their fathers have on them and see how important it is to choose a husband who would be a good father. This would be a good book for couples to read together because it raises a few questions and challenges for modern men and women, and particularly for parents: Does mom ever interfere with “daddy time”? Does dad see changing diapers or wiping noses as “women’s work”? What work / at-home arrangement is best for your family? Fathers, how can you make sure you are affirming your teenage children?
About the Reviewer
Sara Perla is the Program Specialist for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She attended the Catholic University of America and received her Masters degree in Theological Studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. She is also a baker, a ballet dancer, and an avid listener of NPR podcasts.
Disclaimer: Book reviews do not imply and are not to be used as official endorsement by the USCCB of the work or those associated with the work. Book reviews are solely intended as a resource regarding publications that might be of interest to For Your Marriage visitors.