All babies demand their parents' attention. But how many 11-month-olds demand the attention of strangers, too? Ours does. We bring her to restaurants and she scans the room until she catches someone's eye. My husband picks her up and carries her over to her admirer, whom he chats up. Dad's a socialite, Baby's a socialite. Mom reaches into her bag and pulls out a book.
You might think your baby's social confidence depends on the usual mix of genes and environment. This is true, but it might not be the whole truth. There's also evidence that children rely more on their father's social signals than their mother's. That is, socially confident dads may have more socially confident kids. Socially anxious fathers may have more socially anxious kids. It matters less whether Mom is a social butterfly or a bookworm.
The bulk of the research on paternal influence on sociability comes from Susan Bogels, a professor in Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Amsterdam, and her colleague Enrico Perotti. In a recent review, Bogels and Perotti draw on research that suggests a dominant paternal role in their children's sociability, including:
• In one study, 9-11-year-olds were asked to imagine themselves in a series of stories involving strangers, while their mother and father responded in a socially anxious or socially confident way. Children who had socially anxiety were more influenced by their father's reaction more than their mother's.
• A study of boys with behavioral problems, including social anxiety, found that fathering, but not mothering, predicted the children's level of inhibition. In another study, secure infant-father attachment, but not infant-mother attachment, predicted stranger sociability among toddlers.
• Among kids enrolled in treatment for social anxiety, those whose fathers had high levels of social anxiety had a worse outcome (were more socially anxious) than those whose mothers had it.
So here's the mystery: Why would fathers, who have less to do with childrearing than mothers, have more influence on their children's sociabilty?
It's an interesting question, and Bogels and Perotti have an interesting answer. "In the course of human history," they write, "fathers specialized in external protection (e.g. confronting the external world outside the clan or extended family), while mothers provided internal protection (e.g. providing comfort and food). Therefore, children may be hardwired to respond more to their father's signals about the social world than the mother's, and adjust their behavior accordingly.
Through the ages, it benefited children to rely more on their father's than mother's cues about whether unfamiliar people are generally hostile or cooperative. Of course, gender roles have long since changed - moms go out into the world every day and meet strangers - but our instincts haven't.
So the lesson here is that fathers orient their children outward, mothers inward. When researchers observed a group of toddlers taking swimming lessons, they took note of where the parents stood. Mothers protectively stood in front of their babies, encouraging face-to-face interaction with them. Fathers stood in back, so that their children would face their social environment.
Bogel and Perotti's review includes a fascinating aside about paternal roughhousing and its effect on children's social confidence. Rough-and-tumble play - I think of my husband tossing our infant in the air, spinning her around, throwing her over his shoulder, as she giggles and squeals- gets a scientific seal of approval.
Here's why. Kids learn to associate physiological arousal - a racing heart, tight chest, spinning head - with fun instead of fear, which crosses over into other social interaction. Roughhousing also involves behavior - being aggressive, sneaky, teasing, playful - that requires different roles and different responses, and forms a basis for social skills. By pinning kids to the ground, swinging them like sacks of potatoes, attacking them and getting attacked - fathers make their progeny more confident.
So many questions. If we have evolved so that fathers strongly influence their children's sociability, what does this mean?
It means that fathers who are socially anxious themselves are likelier to have kids who are not socially confident. If a kid suffers from severe social anxiety, perhaps his or her father should be involved in the kid's therapy or get therapy himself. But what about kids who don't have fathers who are involved or live at home? How do mothers compensate? And what about gender? So far there is no evidence that boys are more susceptible to the father's signals than are girls, but is this really so? And what about other male figures - male teachers, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers - are they equally influential? At what age is paternal influence on sociability strongest? And are paternal genes more influential here too?
Further research is warranted. Until then, we can wonder about the great socialites in history - the Jackie Os, Andy Warhols, Paris Hiltons, Truman Capotes, Gloria Vanderbilts, Nan Kempners, and Ivana Trumps. Did they get it from their dads?
*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy.