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June 25, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

For decades we’ve known the value of fathers to children. Sociology and psychology have demonstrated the countless ways in which — long-term and short — good father-child relations mean better outcomes for kids. And of course the fathers are happier when they have meaningful, full relationships with their children. All the publications on the subject would fill a library.

Still, a fair amount of literature on parental behavior tends to rate fathers’ behavior in terms of mothers. That is, the more a father parents like a mother, the better a parent he’s judged to be. And the less like her he is, the worse.

But now, as this fine article tells us, researchers are starting to put that paradigm aside and look at what fathers do in a new light (Wall Street Journal, 6/16/15). There’s a lot of new research, so the article skips too hastily through much of it, but overall, it gives a good idea of what’s going on in the research on parenting behavior. The bottom line seems to be that, valuable as we’ve always known fathers to be, we’ve actually been understating them.

When Kathryn Kerns asked 30 teens and preteens to come to her laboratory and talk about their parents, many of their dads scored low on a standard yardstick her research team was using to evaluate the parent-child bond.

The children described rich, warm relationships with their fathers, however, says Dr. Kerns, a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Ohio. They said things like, “My dad gives me encouragement to do things,” or, “My dad tells me he thinks I can do well.”…

The yardsticks researchers typically use to assess parent-child bonding have been tested mostly with mothers, and work best in capturing the soothing, comforting behaviors more common to moms.

So Kerns went about revising the “standard yardstick,” creating new tools with which to gauge dads’ contributions to their children’s upbringing. But it’s not only the failure to measure fathers’ warmth and emotional support that current research reflects.

The ability to form close, trusting bonds with parents early in life predicts the quality of a child’s future friendships, social skills and romantic relationships. Parents serve as a secure base for exploration and risk-taking and provide a safe haven for a child in times of distress. Yet many of the standard assessments scientists have used to analyze the parent-child bond underemphasize the importance of exploration and risk-taking and fail to capture dads’ role in encouraging it.

That of course has long been known, but only recently has the science on parenting started giving it the proper weight.

Luckily, the WSJ writer, Sue Shellenbarger also tackles the newest findings on the biological connections between parents and their kids. As I’ve said many times on this blog, humans are one of between 5% and 10% of mammal species that are bi-parental, i.e. both sexes care for offspring. Parental behavior is stimulated by a group of hormones that spike either during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Clearly, this is necessary in animals whose offspring are born too immature to fend for themselves and thus require care outside the mother’s body. Among humans, those hormones, like oxytocin, prolactin, estradiol and cortisol show markedly increased levels in both men and women associated with pregnancy and birth. But they don’t perform the exact same functions in women as they do in men. Oxytocin and prolactin tend to find receptors in different parts of the male and female brains, resulting in differing behaviors due to the same hormones. Shellenbarger addresses oxytocin.

Both men and women have a hormonal response to becoming parents, marked partly by increases in oxytocin, a neuropeptide that fosters bonding and trust. Oxytocin is linked with different responses in new fathers’ brains than in mothers’, research shows. In women, it is associated with activation of brain regions based in the amygdala and expressing emotions. In men, it is linked with increased activity in regions of the cortex associated with planning and mentalizing, or understanding others’ viewpoints.

Unsurprisingly, men’s and women’s responses to newborns differ somewhat. Mothers tend to form more emotional connections to their children while fathers are planning and strategizing the best ways to care for the new arrival.

There is a great deal of research being done on these parenting hormones in men and women and we can expect considerable new information on the subject in the years to come. But whatever it is, it seems inevitable that what we will learn is the depth and power of fathers’ connections to their children. Again, we’re a bi-parental species. That means fathers produce the hormones that connect them to their children. We’ll only learn more about that as time goes on.

But, adaptable species that we are, men’s brains can act like mothers’ brains when called on to do so.

Of course, both genders can engage in both types of interaction. The brains of homosexual fathers who are their babies’ primary caregivers show as much activation of the amygdala-based parenting network as the brains of mothers, according to a 2014 study led by Ruth Feldman, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. This suggests the brain’s parenting network can be developed by anyone who takes the lead on infant care.

So, as has been noted many times, men can step in and be the primary caregiver as well as women can. Millions of years of evolution and social conditioning have established the mother as the usual primary parent and fathers as defenders and resource providers. But fathers come equipped to play that parental role and can do so when the mother can’t or doesn’t, for whatever reason.

Of course little to none of this happens if fathers aren’t present when their children are very young. The biological connections can’t get established absent that presence, that interaction between father and child. That of course speaks loudly to those who would claim that young children don’t need time — or not much time — with their fathers. That notion has been roundly debunked by sociology and psychology, as Dr. Richard Warshak’s recent analysis of the pertinent literature demonstrates. But now we know that separating fathers from their children early in the child’s life can prevent the most important connections of all — the biological ones.

In short, the news on the role played by hormones in the parent-child bond has clear implications for public policy on child custody and parenting time.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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