In Brief Of Fathers and Teens Fathers have long been neglected in research on child and family psychology, but recent work is identifying numerous ways in which they affect the development of their teenage children.
Among them are unexpected effects on the reproductive development of daughters and the cultivation of empathy in children of both sexes. The new research suggests that a father's love and acceptance are at least as important as the love and acceptance of a mother.
Adapted from Do Fathers Matter? About one in five of its female students was either pregnant or had recently given birth. City officials disputed the exact figures, but they admitted that Frayser had a problem.
The president of a local nonprofit aimed at helping girls blamed the disturbing rate of teen pregnancy on television. A lot of us might say the same thing.
We know that teenagers are impressionable, and the idea that they would be swayed by MTV makes sense. But psychologists Sarah E. Hill and Danielle J. Nearly one in four households was headed by a single mother. For Hill and DelPriore, that observation was a tip-off that something entirely different was going on. You might expect sexual maturation to be deeply inscribed in a teenager's genes and thus not likely to be affected by something as arbitrary and unpredictable as whether or not girls live in the same house as their father.
Yet the association is quite clear. The problem comes in trying to explain it. How could a change in a girl's environment—the departure of her father—influence something as central to biology as her reproductive development? I put that question to Hill. So finding a man requires quick action. The sooner she is ready to have children, the better. She cannot consciously decide to enter puberty earlier, but her biology takes over, subconsciously. In contrast, a girl who grows up in a family in which the bond between her parents is more secure and who has a father who lives in the home might well subconsciously adopt a slower reproductive strategy.
She might conclude that she can take a bit more time to start having children. She can be more thorough in her preparation. The Missing Link For a long time, until women began entering the workforce in bigger numbers in the s and s, fathers had a uniquely valuable familial role to play. They brought home the paychecks that housed and fed their families and provided a little extra for dance lessons, Little League uniforms and bicycles for the kids.
Although bringing home a paycheck might not seem like the most nurturing thing a parent could do, it was vital: Keeping children fed, housed and out of poverty was significant. But was that it? What else could fathers claim to contribute to their children? The record shows that fathers have been widely overlooked in scientific studies. For example, in psychologist Vicky Phares of the University of South Florida reviewed studies of clinical child and adolescent psychology from the leading psychological journals.
Nearly half of them excluded fathers. The situation has now begun to change. The discovery of the father is one of the most important developments in the study of children and families.
Our failure to address the question of fathers' value is more than simply a matter of academic bickering. It is reflected in the shape of the American family. This shift matters because the effects of a missing father can be profound and counterintuitive—as in the age at which a daughter enters puberty.
Daughters at Risk Yet the links between puberty and a father's presence are just associations. They do not reveal what causes these changes. In the ideal experiment that would answer this question, we would assemble a group of families and randomly assign some of the fathers to abandon their families and others to stay. Obviously, this proposal is not likely to win approval from an ethics board. So what is the next best thing? Hill and DelPriore designed an experiment in which young women—some of them teenagers and others just past their teen years—were asked to write about an incident in which their father supported them and then were encouraged to write about a time he was not there for them.
Then they were asked about their attitudes toward sexual behavior. If the researchers' hypothesis was correct, memories of unpleasant father experiences would lead the young women to express more favorable views of risky sexual behavior. Pleasant memories of their fathers should push them in the opposite direction.
And that is what happened. Further experiments showed that father disengagement did not change women's views of other kinds of risky behavior; for instance, they were not more likely to ride a bike without a helmet. The effect was limited to sex. Hill told me that her research rests heavily on work by Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Arizona, who helped to establish the connection between father absence and adverse outcomes for daughters. Ellis calls himself an evolutionary developmental psychologist.
He wants to know whether Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection can help explain how children's environments shape their development—precisely the question that came up in Hill's study.
His research on fathers began in , with efforts to test an interesting theory. The idea was that early childhood experiences could change the way children later seek their mates. This is not true of boys, possibly because they have a different reproductive strategy. In a series of studies beginning in , he found that when girls had a warm relationship with their fathers and spent a lot of time with them in the first five to seven years of their lives, they had a reduced risk of early puberty, early initiation of sex and teen pregnancy.
As Ellis continued this work, however, he became increasingly frustrated. Clearly, the association between fathers and daughters was profound. Yet he could not determine whether the parental behavior caused the consequences he was seeing in the daughters. An alternative was that girls who begin puberty early and engage in risky sexual behavior do so because they inherited certain genes from their parents.
Fathers might pass on genes linked to infidelity to their daughters, in whom they could be associated with risky sexual behavior and early puberty. Or something else in the family's environment could be responsible for the changes in their daughters. Ellis came up with an innovative way to pose the question.
He considered families in which divorced parents had two daughters separated by at least five years in age. When the parents divorced, the older sister would have had five more years with a father's consistent presence than the younger sister. If father absence causes early puberty and risky behavior, then the younger daughter should show more of that behavior than her older sibling.
Also, genes or the family's environment would not confuse the results, because those would be the same for both daughters. It was close to a naturally occurring experiment, Ellis realized. Ellis recruited families with two daughters. Some were families in which the parents divorced; others were intact, to be used as a control group. He wanted to answer two questions: Was the age at which girls had their first menstrual period affected by the length of time they spent with a father in the house?
And did that age vary depending on how their fathers behaved? The second question was added because fathers with a history of violence, depression, drug abuse or incarceration can affect children's development. Ellis's suspicions were confirmed. Younger sisters in divorced families had their first periods an average of 11 months earlier than their older sisters—but only in homes in which the men behaved badly as fathers.
The next step Ellis took was to look at whether these circumstances could affect the involvement of girls in risky sexual behavior. He limited his search to families in which the birth parents separated or divorced when the younger sister was younger than 14 years. Ellis and his colleagues were able to recruit pairs of sisters, some from families in which the parents had divorced and, using a different ad, some whose parents had not. This time the researchers found that risky sexual behavior was not related to how long daughters lived with their fathers but to what the fathers did in the time they spent with their daughters.
One possible explanation, as unlikely as it might seem, is that a father's scent affects his daughters' behavior. Many animals emit pheromones, chemical messengers that can be picked up by others and can alter their behavior.
If the same is true of humans, pheromones could help explain how the presence or absence of fathers affects their daughters—although that remains an untested hypothesis. Some research suggests that women who sleep with a male partner have more regular menstrual cycles, perhaps because of the presence of the male's pheromones.
As we finished our conversation, Ellis brought up something I had been wondering about. What effect does father presence or absence have on sons?
He told me that we do not yet know about sons. His hypothesis is that a father's involvement could have a different effect on sons, enhancing a competitive urge and spurring sons to achieve more when they grow up and leave the family. Warts and All As parents of teenagers understand, it is often hard to know how to respond to the crises, struggles, school challenges and social difficulties that are a normal part of the passage from childhood to adulthood.
What we do matters—but it is so often hard to know what we should do. One key feature of good parenting, however, is to be accepting of teenagers, which again is often easier said than done—especially when they show up with a tattoo or call you from the principal's office. Rohner of the University of Connecticut has spent some years looking at the consequences for children and teenagers of being either accepted or rejected by their parents.
He thinks that parental acceptance influences important aspects of personality. Children who are accepted by their parents are independent and emotionally stable, have strong self-esteem and hold a positive worldview.
Those who feel they were rejected show the opposite—hostility, feelings of inadequacy, instability and a negative worldview. Rohner analyzed data from 36 studies on parental acceptance and rejection and found that they supported his theory. Both maternal and paternal acceptance were associated with these personality characteristics: