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The changing role of fathers

Fathers more involved in child care become better parents — and that’s good for the whole family

Jon Krause

T oday, the images of men in the news media are disturbingly violent. A high profile prison break. A bloody gunfight between police and bikers in Texas. A bombing at a marathon. Over the past few years, there have been mass murders by armed men in movie theaters, elementary schools, at political rallies, in newspaper offices, army bases, and, most recently, a church.

Should we just shrug our shoulders and say, well, that’s just the way men are? Should we adopt a “Lord of the Flies’’ attitude? In that William Golding novel, normal British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island cast off the trappings of civilization and become bloodthirsty savages. Is the dad we see in the supermarket with his baby tucked into a Snugli on his chest an aberration while the real man is the aggressive one we see on the news?

This is an important question to ask on Father’s Day, since these two narratives compete for our attention. The first is the media story replayed night after night, but a second, very different one emerges from social science. Across the world, fathers are becoming more involved with their children, taking more parental leave and becoming more identified with their roles as dads.

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If you believe the hugely popular — albeit unscientific — prose of John Gray (“Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’’) you would say men are born aggressive. According to Gray, men are naturally belligerent, hardwired to retreat into their caves and not communicate with others. They are hopeless when it comes to coping with emotions, their own and others.

How true is this trope? Not very, according to William Pollock, the Harvard psychologist and author of the book “Real Boys.” He says that as babies, boys are more expressive and vocal than girls and are actually wired for communication and emotion, not for stony silence. Indeed, it’s only a rigid “boy code” in our culture that pushes males away from their natural empathy and ability to communicate.

But the role of fathers is changing quickly — and, in turn, changing fathers. In a major study of fathers, Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, found that men who take care of their kids on more than a casual basis undergo a transformation. They develop maternal thinking, and they become “sensitive and nurturing caregivers.”

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A major meta-analysis of studies of nearly 30,000 parents by psychologists Hugh Lytton and David Romney of the University of Calgary found no significant differences between mothers and fathers in seven critical parenting areas: warmth, nurturance, responsiveness, encouragement of dependence, restrictiveness, low encouragement of independence, and disciplinary strictness. In other words, mothers and fathers aren’t on Venus and Mars when it comes to interacting with children. They’re very much on the same planet.

The United States, as a country, hardly recognizes this reality. Men face roadblocks to bonding with their newborns because parental leave is rarely offered and is almost never paid. “Use-it-or-lose-it” paid paternity leave policies in European countries dramatically changed attitudes and behavior. In Sweden, not that long ago, men were derided for taking parental time off. Now, it’s expected that fathers will take two or more months off to be with their babies, and it’s the men who don’t take the time who need to explain themselves.

Changing this expectation had an impact at home, too. Recently the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted a longitudinal analysis of children in America, Australia, Britain, and Denmark. As The Economist reports: “Fathers in all countries who had taken time off work when their child was born were more likely to pitch in than others. Five out of 10 who had taken paternity leave claimed to change nappies daily, against four out of 10 of those who hadn’t; they were also more likely to feed, dress, bathe, and play with their child.”

Perhaps most importantly, those early gains stuck as the child grew. Fathers who took leave were far more likely to read to their children, for instance. Indeed, paternity leave appears to engender a host of good parenting behaviors for both men and women at the outset of a child’s life.

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Are these fathers typical males? The idea of the macho, testosterone-fueled, empathy-deprived loner has long had a powerful grip on the popular imagination in many cultures. But science increasingly tells us it’s time to start reimagining.

Psychologist Faye Crosby of the University of California, Santa Cruz, examined the scientific literature on empathy, altruism, cooperativeness, nurturance, and intimacy. She found “no conclusive evidence to show that men and women differ from one another in the extent to which they attend to and are good at interpersonal relationships.”

One argument for the inbred aggressive nature of men is that studies find boys engage in rough-and-tumble play much more often than girls. The common wisdom is that this behavior is play-fighting, a precursor of an adult male’s natural predilection for violence.

But have we completely misinterpreted rough-and-tumble play as evidence of an innate capacity for aggression? Yes, say Tom Reed and Mac Brown, of the University of South Carolina, who have studied such play. They believe the rough and the tumble, rather than being a form of aggression, provides a context for “the declaration of friendship.” Boys are not the more aggressive sex. They simply engage in different types of intimate play that gives them an acceptable way to be physically close in environments that otherwise discourage such behavior. Boys who display the kind of contact that’s perfectly okay for girls, like holding hands, risk mockery. But through rough-and-tumble activity, boys can showcase their care and intimacy for one another. For example, in the context of such play, “hanging on” and walking arm in arm are considered perfectly acceptable behavior, not “sissy stuff.”

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Many accept as fact the idea that violence is driven by testosterone. But does the steroid hormone cause aggression, or does aggressive behavior trigger its release? As Scientific American put it: “If you give a normal man a shot of testosterone, will he turn into the Incredible Hulk? And do violent men have higher levels of testosterone than their more docile peers?”

The answer is probably not. “A growing body of evidence suggests that testosterone is as much the result of violence as its cause. Indeed, both winning a sporting match and beating an opponent at chess can boost testosterone levels,” the magazine says. Even male fans at sporting events experience an increase in testosterone when their teams win.

In a major review of the literature, John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire in Great Britain doubts that there is any direct relationship between the level of testosterone in the bloodstream and aggressive behavior. If men were all about testosterone, and testosterone was all about violence, surely men would be ill-suited for fatherhood.

Some do argue that the nature of males makes them unsuited for involvement in close and loving parenting. One of these is David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values. He argues in his book “Fatherless America” that this sort of parenting is women’s work, and that the proper job for fathers is to be a “pal” to their children, a junior partner to their wives.

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The lessons implicit from the social science is that this advice should be disregarded. If men are led to believe they can’t be good fathers, they will hurt themselves as well as their kids.

Married men who have good relationships with their children report fewer stress-related physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, and back pain than those with poor relationships with their children. Such close relationships spill over into men’s work life. Involved fathers suffer less from anxiety and depression when they have problems on the job.

There is, in fact, no mothering instinct that is unique to women. Parenting is learned behavior. Fathers who ignore the erroneous lessons saturating our culture are fortunate. The science says they’ll have a good chance of raising boys who will be free to one day become caring fathers themselves.


Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis University and Caryl Rivers of Boston University are the authors of “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy.”