Next month, on Father’s Day, the spotlight will shine on manly parenting for a day or two. That spotlight will likely feature discussion of the various ways in which fathers enhance the lives of their children. There will be anecdotes, some of which resonate with our own experience. There may also be reference to some relevant research.
But measuring the effects of fatherhood on children’s outcomes is more difficult than you think. If we were California mice, we might “remove” a sample of fathers to determine the effects of fathers on offspring survival. If we were captive monogamous monkeys, maybe we would be tempted to briefly remove a father to check for influences on his offspring’s stress response. But since we’re humans these kinds of removal experiments run up against ethical and methodological constraints.
One way we might test for effects of fathers on their children is to measure the survival rates of children when fathers are alive rather than dead. This contrast of father presence may seem remote in a low-mortality country like the U.S., but among smaller-scale societies of hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and pastoralists it has more relevance wherein more dads die. It is a blunt way of looking at father effects, but one might think it should illustrate them clearly. In a review of such studies by Rebecca Sear and Ruth Mace, covering quantitative data from 15 societies such as the Ache of Paraguay and in rural Gambia, in 7 societies the death of a father was associated with higher mortality of his children, but in the remaining 8 societies there was no difference in child mortality depending on father presence or absence. In that same review, the death of a mother was associated with higher offspring mortality in every society, an indication that mothers clearly matter, and by this measure more than fathers.
In a rigorous quantitative study of Tsimane forager-horticulturalists of lowland Bolivia, Jeffrey Winking, Michael Gurven, Hillard Kaplan and colleagues tested effects of fathers being alive or dead on children’s mortality. They found that young children of living fathers had slightly lower mortality rates. To push the analysis further, they explored a wider array of outcomes at later offspring ages. After all, maybe the presence of one’s father has little impact on an infant or toddler’s survival, but could have pronounced effects later in development, such as achieving adult social success. Here, though, early paternal death was subsequently associated with daughters’ lower adult body mass index (a measure of ‘energetic capital’), but unrelated to completed height, age of first reproduction, completed fertility for age, and number of surviving offspring for age among adult sons and daughters.
As another recent and rigorous effort, Mary Shenk and Brooke Scelza investigated impacts of fatherhood on children’s outcomes in Bangalore, India. They note that paternal investment in Bangalore may be less ‘substitutable’ than in other contexts, and that fathers’ efforts may enhance children’s educational opportunities, provide resources to aid business or other work success, and offset expenses of marriage. They thus tested whether the age of a father’s death impacts sons’ and daughters’ educational attainment, income, and marriage costs. Effects were most visible when the father of a juvenile or adolescent died, resulting in lower educational attainment and incomes among such fathers’ children. The ability of other caregivers (e.g., extended kin) may have ameliorated potential effects of a father’s death among younger children, and by older ages (e.g., when a child was 20) she or he may have been far enough along a life course to have been less impacted by a father’s death.
While some studies observe impacts of fatherhood on children’s outcomes, why are these so variable and difficult to measure? As Sarah Hrdy has argued, in her book Mothers and Others, humans require caregiving by not just a mother but various others. Those others regularly include fathers, but grandmothers, older siblings, and even paid non-relatives may fit the bill. This means that contributions by fathers can often be made up by others if fathers are not available, and that the influence of fathers on children’s outcomes can vary by offspring age, sex, and specific features of the context. Another reason returns to the inability to experimentally conduct human father removal studies: even the observationally-based studies comparing associations of father presence/absence cannot remove all potentially confounding variables. Maybe the fathers who die or who are not available differ in some other characteristics from the fathers who are alive or present, thus also reducing the observed impacts of fatherhood on children’s outcomes.
Does this all mean that we should disband Father’s Day because the actual influences of fathers are too difficult to measure or maybe less dramatic than anticipated? Of course not. In fact, we could expand the scope to consider potential father effects on children's mental health, relationship dynamics, work outcomes, and more. These are the more commonly considered outcomes from western studies, as overviewed in books such as Michael Lamb’s The Role of the Father in Child Development, or Eirini Flouri’s Fathering and Child Outcomes. Or we can turn to personal anecdotes, and ask how our own fathers may have helped make us who we are today. I am not sure how to measure this either, but thank you dad.
Flouri, E. (2005). Fathering and child outcomes. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons.
Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lamb, M. E., Ed. (2010). The role of the father in child development. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Shenk, M. K, & Scelza, B. A. (2012). Paternal investment and status-related child outcomes: timing of father’s death affects offspring success. Journal of Biosocial Science, 44, 549-569.
Sear, R., & Mace, R. (2008). Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 1-18.
Winking, J, Gurven, M., & Kaplan, H. (2011). Father death and adult success among the Tsimane: Implications for marriage and divorce. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 79-89.