Father-involvement in childcare is surprisingly uncommon in human societies. Indeed, we find many examples in the ethnographic record of outright father-infant avoidance. Fathers may, however, contribute to the upkeep of their children, and women are attracted to males who project a nurturing attitude towards children. In spite of the paucity of evidence for child-care by fathers, we have found a number of cultures where anthropologists describe a scene where fathers engage in brief, very public nurturing of their offspring, something I’ve labeled “baby-parading.” (1) But is baby-parading about childcare or does it, rather, signal mate quality?
When anthropologists describe family life in village settings around the world, fathers and children are rarely found in the same context. They may not even reside in the same dwelling. Among the Na, in Southwestern China, women and their children live in consanguine households, children never learn who their fathers are (2). The physical distance between fathers and their offspring may be ratified by custom. Societies construct elaborate rationalizations for the father's absence from the nursery. Kwara’ae “…men’s degree of interaction with infants was limited by beliefs that urine and feces were polluting..” The infant’s skin was also considered potentially polluting until it reached full pigmentation (3). Other societies consider it taboo for a father to pick up an infant. In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea there is the notion that a baby will die should the parents live together, because it may drink the father’s war magic (contained in semen) with its mother’s milk. Indeed, exposure to the gaze of a man who has “strong” war magic is believed to kill the newborn. (4)
Social change also affects the father-child relationship. Employment opportunities associated with modernization bring new costs and benefits for village children and their mothers. John Bock and Sara Johnson collaborated on a sophisticated natural experiment to study the impact of Botswana fathers on their children. They compared children of migrant workers with children of fathers resident in the village. They reasoned that since the former were unable to enjoy the benefits—if any—of direct father involvement, they should show a decrement in traditional skill acquisition compared to their peers. No such decrement was found. (5). Generally, studies have failed to find evidence that the father makes much difference to the survival of children (6).
So what about “Baby-Parading?” As we examined cases of father involvement in the ethnographic record, we (7) found quite a few like the following:
"When an Ngandu (Central African farmers) father holds his infant in public, he is “on stage.” He goes out of his way to show his infant to those who pass by and frequently tries to stimulate the infant while holding it. The man in plate 17 showed me a large fish he had just caught and I asked to take a photograph of him with his fish. He said fine, promptly picked up his nearby infant,and proudly displayed both fish and infant. His wife was also nearby but was not invited into the photograph." (8)
Other, similar, examples come from Indonesia, West Africa, Oceania, Papua New Guinea, North and South America. Since these baby-parading episodes were brief and were terminated abruptly at the first sign of the child’s fussiness or elimination by the father passing the child back to its mother or usual caretaker, it seems clear they weren’t about caring for the child or spelling its mother. A corollary observation is that male caretakers tend to carry the child in a precarious or temporary position (on shoulders, in crook of arm, held out in front of the torso), whereas women tend to tuck the child away in some carrying device on their back or hip. Men’s carrying style is suited to short duration and maximum exposure, women’s to comfort and protection. I argued that the purpose of baby-parading might well be to make a conspicuous display of a man’s suitability as a mate, either to prospective wives (in a polygamous society) or lovers.
So do we see echoes of these findings in contemporary society? Absolutely! For example, in Sweden, where legislated time away from work is available to fathers, there has been little increased involvement in childcare and no radical change in parental responsibility. “Women continue to be the primary parent. Men, as fathers, assist them.” (9) Japanese fathers, whose work and leisure keep them from home, are not expected to participate in the lives of their children. And, government attempts to change that status quo have been a dismal failure. Indeed, many seem to suffer from kitaku kyofu, an "allergic" reaction to their own homes (10).
In one of the most comprehensive surveys to date, Craig’s study of over 4,000 Australian households finds that resident fathers devote, on average, just eight minutes a day in physical care—something beyond talking or reading to the child. Fathers are rarely alone with their children and do not increase their contribution to “housework” when there are children in the family. She concludes: “despite widespread approval of the idea of shared parenting, it has not been adopted in practice, even in relative terms.” (11) The following anecdote, from a study in the US, vividly illustrates what La Rossa has called: “The asynchrony between the culture and conduct of fatherhood.” (12)
"Sandy’s and Ben’s images of fatherhood were quite different. Ben thought about the new baby much as an athlete might think about a trophy: After it has been won, it sits on the shelf to be viewed from a distance. Sandy thought about fatherhood in much more personal terms and imagined an active participant in Kim’s childhood. When the baby arrived and Ben walked away from his responsibilities, Sandy’s illusions about Ben began to crumble." (13)
As the photo shows, American men are only too happy to appear in public parading their babies. A New Yorker cartoon shows a well dressed man approaching a park entrance outside which stands a shady looking character with a pair of strollers with children and a sign which reads: “Stroll a Kid….$10 One Hour, $6 Half Hour.” (14) Baby-parading appears in a range of popular media from the animated film Ice Age to Cheers to Mazda commercials. And studies show it probably works: the baby-parader is more attractive to the opposite sex. For example, in a study of mate attractiveness, women were shown photos of young men in various poses including getting into a sports-car and interacting with a child. Those shown with a child were rated as more desirable marital partners. (15)
Is the father’s role in childcare destined to be ephemeral? Not necessarily. We must remember that the very idea that fathers should be deeply involved with their young offspring and serve as a mirror of the nurturing mother is extremely recent. (16) Changing habits and beliefs rooted in evolution and operative for tens of millennia takes some time—even with wide cultural consensus on the desirability of such change. And, unfortunately, consensus on this issue is by no means clear. For every liberal who applauds the nurturing father idea there are probably two conservatives who’re just fine with the status quo. Indeed, my own sense of the rise of religious, especially Islamic, fundamentalism is that it’s about keeping women firmly bound to the domestic sphere while men operate freely in the extra-domestic sphere. Co-mingling gender roles is anathema.
1. Lancy, D.F. 2008. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Hua, Cai. 2001. A Society Without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China. Asti Husvedt (translator) Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.
3. Gegeo, D. W., and Watson-Gegeo, K. A. 1985. Kwara’ae Mothers and Infants: Changing Family Practices, in Infant Care and Feeding in the South Pacific, Health, Work, and Childrearing. Edited by L. B. Marshall, pp. 235-253. New York: Gordon and Beach Science.
4. Gray, B. M. 1994. Enga Birth, maturation and survival: Physiological characteristics of the life cycle in the New Guinea Highlands. in Ethnography of Fertility and Birth. Edited by C. P. MacCormack, pp. 65-103. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
5. Bock, J. and Johnson, S. E. 2002. Male migration, remittances, and child outcome among the Okavango Delta peoples of Botswana,’ in Handbook of Father Involvement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Edited by C.S. Tamis-LaMonda and N. Cabrera, pp. 308-335. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
6. Sear, R. and Mace, R. 2008. Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior 29: 1–18.
7. Lancy, D. F., Grove, M. A. 2006. “Baby-parading:” Child care or showing off? Paper
presented at Symposium: Defining Childhood: Cross-cultural Perspectives, Annual Meeting, Society for Anthropological Sciences, Savannah, GA., February.
8. Hewlett B. S. 1991. Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal-Infant Care. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
9. Welles-Nyström, B. 1996. Scenes from a marriage: Equality ideology in Swedish family policy, maternal ethnotheories, and practice, in Parents’ Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences. S. Harkness and C. M. Super, pp. 192-214. New York: The Guilford Press.
10. Jolivet, M. 1997. Japan: The Childless Society? The Crisis of Motherhood. London: Routledge.
11. Craig, L. 2006. Does father care mean father share? A comparison of how mothers and fathers in intact families spend time with children. Gender and Society 20: 259-281.
12. La Rossa, R. 1988. Fatherhood and social change. Family Relations, 37:451-457.
13. Berrick, J. D. 1995. Faces of Poverty: Portraits of Women and Children on Welfare. New York: Oxford University Press.
14. Feggo 2005. Cartoon. The New Yorker, September 19th
15. Brase, G. L. 2006. Cues of parental investment as a factor in attractiveness, Evolution and Human Behavior 27:145-157.
16. Pleck, J. 1987. American fathering in historical perspective, in Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity. Edited by M.S. Kimmel, pp. 83-97. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.