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“Mr. Mom” The New (or Old?) Normal

Male hormones support parenting

*Primary author is Rebecca Noble, with assistance from Angela Kurth

When it comes to parenting, mothers traditionally get all of the attention, credit or blame, because historically, women have been assumed the primary caregivers for children. Some of this is only natural given the biological role of mothers in childbirth and breastfeeding.

On the one hand, human infants are born highly immature and develop slowly, requiring intensive levels of parental care, yet, on the other hand, humans have higher total fertility and shorter intervals between births than other primates, making intensive parental care difficult to provide by one individual (i.e., mother) (Gettler 2014). So adults other than the mother —“alloparents”—are necessary provide the intensive care that young children need (Hrdy 2009).

What about dads? Where exactly do they fit in? Lee Gettler's research provides some insight.

Interestingly enough, though rare in the animal kingdom, paternal caregiving is common in humanity’s evolutionary history. In small-band hunter-gatherer communities, fathers play a large role in caring for young children. Dads are critical members of the “alloparents” (Lancaster & Lancaster 1983).

So, human infant immaturity requires alloparent care including paternal investment. But some might ask, are males capable of the kinds of intensive nurturing care that mothers provide?

Yes! Fathers physiologically equipped to provide hands-on childcare. Just as biology demanded the involvement of fathers in childcare, biology likewise equipped human males with the capacity to fulfill this role (Gettler 2014). Studies of fatherhood within the few species that display paternal investment in offspring reveal that the capacity for parental care in fathers is actually related to the main male sex hormone, testosterone (van Anders 2013).

In small-band hunter-gatherer communities, children and adult males usually spend a great deal of time together. So the baseline for human evolution is paternal (and other male) caregiving.

In studies of human males in Western societies where adult males spend little time with children, high testosterone levels are related to increased competitive behavior, number of sexual partners, and risk taking as well as lower empathic ability. On the other hand, low testosterone levels in human males are related to more nurturing behavior towards infants and those who nurture children have lower levels than those who don’t. This suggests that human males have evolved a “neuroendocrine architecture” that is responsive to childcare. In other words, low testosterone and increased childcare reinforce each other in human fathers (Gettler 2014).

The research shows not only that men are crucial to, but also that their biology is supportive of, intensive hands-on childcare. It’s “normal”! Dads can feel good and right about wanting to spend time nurturing their (and even other people’s) children.

Series on Child Flourishing*

1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)

2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)

3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)

4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)

5. “Mr. Mom” The Old Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)

6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)

7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)

8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)

9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)

*Posts are based on papers presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.



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When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)


Gettler, L. (2014, September). The Socioendocrinology of Parenthood: Evolution, Culture, and Development. Paper presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, Notre Dame, IN.

Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Harvard University Press.

Lancaster, J. B., & Lancaster, C. S. (1983). Parental investment: the hominid adaptation. How humans adapt: A biocultural odyssey, 33-56.

van Anders, S. M. (2013). Beyond masculinity: testosterone, gender/sex, and human social behavior in a comparative context. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 34(3), 198-210.