Have Fathers Become Irrelevant?

Have Fathers Become Irrelevant?

The two-parent family has been deteriorating for decades: Since 1960, the percentage of American children born out of wedlock has risen from 5 to 41. Though unmarried parents often live together when the child is born, they are far more likely than married parents to break up -- and fathers who don't live with their kids are much less involved when it comes to parenting.

Does this hurt anyone? There is a fairly broad consensus that it does, for the simple reason that children raised by two parents tend to have better outcomes, even after researchers do their best to account for complicating factors like class and race. But there are nagging doubts in some quarters.

"Hereditarians," drawing on an extensive literature of twin and adoption studies, argue that genes and broader societal forces overwhelm parenting when it comes to child outcomes -- and point out that the problems associated with single motherhood show up far less when a father dies, which suggests that the absence of a father in itself isn't the problem. Meanwhile, many on the left hesitate to criticize alternative family structures, some going so far as to argue that father absence doesn't harm children, and others noting that crime has fallen over the last couple of decades even as father absence has continued to rise. And finally, psychologists who study child development have long focused on mothers, out of a conviction that they're the parent that really counts.

Paul Raeburn's Do Fathers Matter? steps into this debate with a somewhat different approach. While Raeburn does spend some time pointing out basic correlations between better fathering and better kids -- evidence that skeptical readers will promptly deposit into the "circular file" -- he also takes a close look at the biology of fatherhood, from the sperm dads provide to the parenting they contribute. Raeburn highlights promising research suggesting that men are wired for fatherhood, and that children develop differently depending on whether a father is present.

For obvious reasons, the biological changes that pregnant women and mothers experience have been studied in depth. But it turns out that men's bodies respond to parenthood, too. Fathers experience changes in the hormones testosterone, prolactin, and cortisol, especially when they're in the presence of their kids. Hormones also seem to play a role in the differences between dads -- for example, men higher in testosterone tend to be less attentive to their kids, and giving dads another hormone, oxytocin, makes them more responsive. Unflatteringly to devoted fathers, there's even, apparently, an inverse correlation between testicle size and paternal attentiveness.

This echoes patterns found in nature. One experiment Raeburn recounts looked at two rodent species, one whose dads are active and another whose dads are not. As revealed by dissection, the active dads' brains change with fatherhood; the absent dads' brains don't. The relationship between testosterone, testicle size, and paternal attentiveness seems to hold across species, too.

As Raeburn notes, it's not hard to imagine why nature might have built some men for fatherhood. Males everywhere face a tradeoff between siring as many children as possible and sticking around to help their children make it through life. Involved fathers can evolve when dads actually have something to contribute -- as Raeburn puts it, "if the father can't do anything to boost his children's prospects, he's not going to stay around" -- and there are many reasons to think that, throughout human history, an involved father would have been a boon to his kids.

Interestingly, this isn't just about pure survival in a child's vulnerable early years. To the contrary, Raeburn notes a research review showing that, in many premodern cultural groups, the presence of a father doesn't seem to increase the odds of survival at all. Kids compensate for the loss of a father -- and even, sometimes, a mother -- by relying more heavily on other relatives, especially maternal grandmothers. According to the study, fathers may be more important to older children, "teaching them subsistence skills and enhancing their marriage and fertility prospects."

Unfortunately, though, all this gets us only so far. Evolutionary history may live on in men's hormones, but that's not proof that "fathers matter" today. Not only are kids much less likely to die than they were in the past, but modern economies and governments take on many of the roles -- from educator to provider to physical protector -- that fathers might once have held.

The missing piece of the puzzle is how children evolved. Certainly, children are not rendered completely helpless without a father -- that would hardly be adaptive. But it's not outside the realm of possibility that kids naturally seek out a father in their environment, and that they develop differently or react in undesirable ways when a father is absent.

For those dubious of simple correlations between conscientious dads and conscientious kids -- who's to say that's not genetic? -- the ideal way to study this issue is an experiment: Randomly assign some dads to leave their families and see how the kids turn out. That's not ethical, but Raeburn reviews the next best things: experiments with animals, and naturally occurring "quasi-experiments" with humans.

Animals are not people, but by studying the parenting arrangements that occur in nature we can get a broad sense of what to look for in our own families. And there's good evidence that children can evolve to depend on paternal attention and guidance. Research with rodents, for example, shows that separating a child from its father can alter the child's brain, hindering emotional and cognitive development.

What about humans? One theory is that children respond to the cues provided by their family environment: They take their own household's stability as an indicator of whether stability is an achieveable goal. If it's possible to set up a two-parent family and make large investments in each child, the child develops in ways that prepare him to take this approach as an adult -- but if the environment is unstable, children develop with a tendency toward early puberty, reckless behavior, and fast reproduction, which may historically have been an appropriate response to stressful circumstances.

Like most evolutionary stories, this seems reasonable enough but requires more than speculation. Raeburn notes evidence that girls who grow up without their biological fathers tend to reach puberty faster. And a quasi-experiment suggests this is more than just correlation: When a couple has more than one daughter and then divorces, it exposes the younger daughter to a longer period of father absence, and in these families, the younger daughters experience menarche significantly earlier than their older sisters. (This effect was especially dramatic when the younger daughters had been exposed to "paternal dysfunction" at a young age. Another study shows that younger siblings of divorced parents are also more likely to become delinquent.) Far more research is needed, but this is strong support for the theory that the presence of a father is important to kids even today.

Do Fathers Matter? does not purport to be the definitive answer to the question its title poses, and some pieces of evidence here are much stronger than others. But as we come to grips with the decline of the two-parent family, it's an excellent contribution to the discussion.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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