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The Power of Dad

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the 1994 film Junior, a male scientist becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl. It’s a rather ridiculous tale, but if any man could be given the superpower of giving birth, my dad should have been the one. I have never met anyone who loved kids and parenting more than my father did.

Courtesy of Need2CPhotography via Flickr.

One time when I was six, my best friend’s mother dropped her daughter off at my dad’s house, her 18-month old son in tow. My dad invited the little guy to stay. He could “play” with my brother, he said. (My brother was four.) The mom was amazed; this was the early 1970s and my father was offering be alone with four small children, including a toddler. “He’s still in diapers,” the mother pointed out. “I can change diapers,” my dad said. That mother still remembers the free time my father gave her that day, and how much she needed it. But it was no act of altruism for my dad, who once told me he liked people in reverse relation to their age. Consoling crying, fixing boo boos, cleaning up poop was all part of the fun.

I was lucky. I grew up with a father who loved spending time with me, taking care of me, solving my problems, organizing my schedule and helping me learn. Because my father played such a huge role in my life, and played roles that, in many (if not most) families, only women play, I never really questioned the ability of a dad to parent.

Many people do, however, or they discount a father’s role outside of providing financial stability and maybe dispensing discipline. Even scientists who ought to know better have been negligent in this respect. Author Paul Raeburn writing in the latest Scientific American Mind cites a 2005 review article that showed that nearly half of 514 studies of clinical and child and adolescent psychology excluded fathers (see “How Dads Influence Teens’ Happiness”). Only now are we “discovering” fathers. I believe it, but…wow.

Whenever I had any worry or concern, I could get emotional and practical help from my dad. He always had time. I probably also benefited subconsciously from my father’s attention. In Raeburn’s story, I learned that for girls, in particular, when dad leaves or the bond between father and daughter is weak, their bodies tend to develop faster physically. The evolutionary reason for this effect might be that since men don’t stick around, speed is of the essence. And such accelerated development makes teenage pregnancy more likely.

Courtesy of Spirit-Fire via Flickr.

Along the same lines, other studies suggest that girls in whom an incident in which dad failed to support her had been top-of-mind showed riskier attitudes toward sexual behavior. And overall, research strongly suggests that girls who grow up with dads like mine are less likely to enter puberty early, to have sex early and to get pregnant early.

In addition, a father’s behavior toward his children matters to their happiness. “Children who feel accepted by their parents are independent and emotionally stable, have strong self-esteem and hold a positive worldview,” Raeburn writes. Those who feel rejected, however, are hostile, unstable and negative. And a father’s acceptance matters as much as a mother’s.

I could go on, but to me, the main question is not whether fathers matter, but how to let fathers know how much they matter. Men need to feel empowered by and accepted in their jobs as parents. My dad was such a rarity decades ago, not only because he rejected what society told him his role was supposed to be, but also because he received my mother’s support. Although my mother and father did not live together after I was four, my mom was undoubtedly instrumental in enabling his involvement, and I don’t take this (or anything else she did for us) for granted. When couples split—and they do quite often—whether dad sticks around for the kids is, in part, up to all of us. We need to change our attitudes toward them or most of them won’t change for us.

I think we’ve made considerable progress in taking men seriously as parents over the past 40 years. More often now, I meet dads who seem like mine was. (The other day, I stood behind a man in the checkout line at Target who was shopping alone with four children, three of them very small, and he seemed quite okay with it.) But as a society, I believe that we can do a lot more to make sure men know how much we value the job of Dad.

Memories

When my father wasn’t taking care of kids, he was usually working. I remember visiting him many times in his office in the psychology department at the University of Oregon. (He kept snacks for us in a file drawer.) But before I was born or can remember, he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied memory. One of his colleagues from that era, Don Mackay, penned our cover story for this issue (see “Rebuilding Memories Makes Them Stick”). MacKay describes how he developed a new theory of memory from studies of the famous amnesic, H.M. His fascinating tale helps explain what happens to our memories as we age and how we can refurbish them. In an accompanying article, Felipe De Brigard discusses our changing understanding of the brain areas involved in memory and the amazing diversity of functions that the brain’s main memory engine, the hippocampus, has been found to play (see “What Does the Hippocampus Do?”).

I treasure the memories I have of my father, and perhaps my rehearsal of some of them here will help me keep them alive. I remember the pictures he drew on my bag lunches, his excursions to deliver a forgotten bathing suit or notebook, the TV dinners and overdone steaks he cooked, his volunteer judging at the local debate tournament, the endless board games and math lessons…Much of it was great, some of it, less so. All of it mattered.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. larkalt 8:45 am 04/15/2014

    The traditional patriarchal father is important in a different way: he tells his children what they should be like, what they should do, who they should become.

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  2. 2. ozrkmtndd 1:58 pm 04/15/2014

    What a wonderful account of your father! My daughter and I have a strong relationship, even though I am divorced from her mother. We have a peculiar custody arrangement–I have custody of my daughter five hours a day on average. I have a strong commitment to being the parent she needs. I teach a a college also, and a community college. My daughter repays the extra effort it takes me with one of the greatest personalities I can imagine–very Shirley Temple like. Energetic, creative, and super smart are all adjectives that can be applied to her.

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  3. 3. hkraznodar 5:50 pm 04/18/2014

    My dad tried very hard to be a good father and husband. Mostly he didn’t do all that well. I learned from many of his mistakes and based on conversations with my sons and wife as well as my sisters, have done a much better job. I doubt that I would be a decent dad if I hadn’t grown up with a father that visibly tried hard to get it right. It helps that I married the right woman.

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