The title of this article comes from a quote by Dr. Kyle Pruett…one of the world’s leading child development experts. In his book Fatherneed, he also said that, “Fathers are the single greatest untapped resource in the lives of American families.” Provocative stuff, and especially relevant to a dad like me.
To be sure, there’s no denying the importance and significance of moms. The bond between a mother and child has been the subject of volumes of science, literature, philosophy, art, and poetry…and it’s clear that mother/child interactions help shape development in every conceivable way. Newborns are hardwired to respond to their mother’s voice and gaze…in fact, there is evidence that demonstrates that mom’s voice primes the neural development in fetuses that govern speech processes and even immune responses.
Sadly, in the context of conversations and science of parenting…the influence of fathers on child development has been largely underrepresented. But there are very compelling reasons that dads are every bit as central to the long term development of children as moms are. Broadly speaking, this influence can felt in three interesting areas:
- Epigenetic Factors
- Bonding Experiences
- Modeling Behaviors
The Nutritional Choices Men Make Can Shape Generations
Epigenetics is one of the most important ideas to come down the scientific pike in recent years. Basically, it’s the notion that gene expression can get turned on or off in response to environmental factors such as toxins, stress, and dietary/lifestyle factors. For example, a person may have the DNA that predisposes them to type 2 diabetes, but proper diet and regular exercise may help inhibit the expression of those genes.
Recent studies suggest that a man’s nutritional history may have a tremendous impact on his offspring’s health and that this effect may be quite strong for generations. The implications of this outlook are pretty amazing. It suggests as science writer Judith Shulevitz notes, that “chemical insults and social setbacks of everyday life distill themselves in sperm.”
In the past, women have borne the greatest responsibility for eating right to help ensure the health of the next generation. But research involving epigenetics indicates that the nutritional choices fathers make may be just as decisive.
Bonding Behavior In Fathers
Scientists have long assumed that the mother-child bond is the most significant factor shaping development in a child’s life. Nursing mothers and their babies are flooded with the “love hormone” oxytocin in the first weeks after birth, which binds the two in a uniquely special relationship.
The latest studies, however, indicate that oxytocin levels increase dramatically in males in the first few weeks after their children are born. Interestingly, the increases in oxytocin (and decreases in testosterone) appear to be enhanced by playful parenting and gross motor stimulation such as physical play and daily activities like helping the baby sit up, and other activities that encourage smiles, exploration, and laughter.
I’ve had the chance to experience the relationship between play and bonding first hand with my own three children. The significance of these kinds of activities really hit home several years ago. I had just walked in the door after a long day at my practice. I was dog tired when my wife handed me a fussy six-month old, who definitely needed some attention.
I didn’t quite know what to do, so I lay down and started doing some bench presses with my daughter. Up-Down, Up-Down. She loved it….and I started to feel the burn in my biceps. This was a win/win/win situation. My wife got a much-needed break, my daughter got some positive daddy time and some gross motor play, and I got a long-overdue workout in the process.
That experience was so rewarding that I wrote about book about it. Baby Barbells: The Dad’s Guide to Fitness and Fathering is a board book for dads that was a really fun project for me and has made a difference for the thousands of dads who have enjoyed it since. It’s a quick and simple read that provides some great tips on how dads can create quality time with their kids that will really make a positive difference in their children’s lives.
Male Role Models — Leading by Example
According to Ronald Rohner at the University of Connecticut, the behaviors that dads model to their kids will have a decisive influence on development. Rohner suggests that in many areas, “kids tend to pay more attention to what dad does and dad says than mom, and he’s going to have more influence.” This is particularly true when it comes to qualities like persistence and grit, which studies suggest may be shaped more by fathers than mothers.
As the science of fatherhood continues to develop…it is yielding some very interesting results. But you don’t need to be a scientist or a parenting expert to be a great influence on your young ones. Just try to carve out some quality time with your kids, engage in playful bonding, and be the best role model you can be. Fatherhood is so simple that even a dad can do it.
Take good care,
Dr. Joshua Levitt