Award-winning journalist Paul Raeburn recently concluded that “the discovery of the father is one of the most important developments in the study of children and families” in our day. Two hundred years ago, “fathers began a long march from the center to the periphery” of family life as factory and office work took them away from home for long periods of the day. Mothers increasingly became identified as more important in children’s lives while fathers’ roles decreased and became less direct. Some researchers even concluded that fathers might even be irrelevant in children’s lives, “except as the providers of the family income.” Among psychologists, the unique importance of the mother-infant bond overshadowed the potential importance of any other relationship, including a father’s.
By the time mothers began entering the workforce, fatherhood had lost, “in full or in part,” each of its traditional roles: “irreplaceable caregiver, moral educator, head of family and breadwinner.” At the same time, manhood was moved “from the pedestal to the mud,” with femininity held up as nurturing and selfless, while masculinity was condemned as self-serving, aggressive and emotionally inept. When the sexual revolution permanently divided sexual intimacy from marriage and parenthood, fatherhood became fractured and in the decades since, nearly half of all children have grown up without the continual presence and nurturing of their fathers.
This tragic loss of fatherhood had one silver lining. We were forced to learn how important the nurturing of fathers is in the lives of children. The “discovery of fatherhood” reveals that fathers’ way of nurturing is as important as mothers’, but its complementary form may blind us to its importance.
For example, we now know that beginning in a child’s infancy, both fathers and mothers experience dramatic increases in “bonding hormones” but the same hormones elicit different responses. Mothers are predisposed to “coo and cuddle,” while fathers are predisposed to “tickle and toss.” Both are able to match their infant’s emotions and bond, but each offers different expressions in bonding that are critical for development.
This complementarity even shows up in the way fathers hold infants. While a mother is likely to hold her infant to maximize eye contact and closeness, fathers are more likely to use a “football hold” — giving the child the same view of the world that he has. This way of holding parallels how fathers influence the way children relate to the world. Lack of father closeness is consistently associated with delinquent and criminal behaviors, while closeness is associated with empathy, happiness and relationship quality in adulthood. Even the way fathers roughhouse with children predicts less aggression, stronger peer relationships and greater popularity among peers.
Fathers also influence children’s brain development in complementary ways. Compared to mothers’, their interactions are more typically characterized by arousal, excitement and unpredictability in a way that stimulates openness to the world, exploration and discovery. Where mothers, for example, are more likely to pick up a ball and talk to their toddler about its color and shape, fathers are more likely to use the ball in a unique way, like bouncing it on their toddler.
Fathers are also more likely to encourage children in risk-taking and pursuing opportunities that facilitate educational and occupational achievement. And fathers typically encourage children in developing independence and finding solutions to their problems. Where mothers are more likely to reach in and help children solve a problem, fathers tend to hold back while still offering support, building capacity and confidence. These behaviors don’t always fit the traditional definition of “holding close and sensitively responding.” But a key part of nurturing is the capacity to “let go,” something fathers seem particularly good at preparing children to do. This helps explain why having an involved father is so strongly associated with earning good grades and graduating from college.
We may have rediscovered how important fathers are, but a boy today “does not simply grow into” a good father. As Anthony Esolen insightfully notes, motherhood is “a biological reality with cultural expression,” but fatherhood is “a cultural reality built on a biological foundation.” We as a society are responsible to build fathers. That means appreciating how a boy depends on lessons for healthy development that only other men, “who speak in his dialect,” can provide. It means a culture that appreciates and develops true masculinity, recognizing as David Gilmore found that for a man to be tender, he must be tough enough to fend off enemies; to be generous he must be intent and focused enough “to amass goods;” to be gentle, he must be able to confront danger; and to love he must be assertive and confident enough to win his wife, and protect his own. We have discovered the importance of fatherhood, now we need to better build and protect it.