Photo: ThinkStock
Photo: ThinkStock

Does daddy know best?

Science is beginning to understand the biological benefits for men deeply involved with parenting

When I became a full-time father three years ago, I rapidly realized I had joined one of India’s smallest, most-invisible minorities.

On a Whatsapp group of mothers in my daughter’s playschool, I am the only father. At the playgrounds I frequent with my four-year-old on balmy Bangalore evenings, my adult companions are mothers and nannies. Some fathers show up on weekends.

“Who is the boss in this house, eh?" I asked my dew-eyed cheeky moppet.

“Amma," she said promptly.

“Says who?"

She narrowed her eyes. “Amma," she repeated. “You don’t even go to office."

Well.

So my wife’s the boss in my daughter’s eyes. Does it matter? Not to me, and not to science, which now firmly says there are great benefits to having fathers play a dominant parenting role.

Popular belief slots fathers as poor communicators, bereft of maternal instinct and, overall, being unable to do what mothers do. “Despite the popularity of these beliefs, the research does not support them," writes Linda Nielsen, a US psychologist and author of Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research & Issues, published in 2012. Nielsen argues that strengthening the father-daughter relationship has far reaching benefits.

Special benefits emerge when fathers become primary care-givers or at least take over many household chores, research shows. Not only do the brains of parentally involved fathers undergo rewiring to make them more sensitive, such men report hormonal changes similar to those experienced by mothers—and the daughters of care-giving fathers are more likely to become smarter, more daring and professionally ambitious than those of conventional dads.

This does not conclusively prove that the ambitions of daughters are realized because their fathers are involved with their lives, but the data do suggest that such fathers influence children—and not just daughters—positively.

In May, an Israeli study reported that child-care switches on male-parenting brain circuits previously thought to light up only in mothers. This finding comes at a good time. Although we are a minuscule minority, fathers who raise children are growing in number, as is evidenced by the men who write to me whenever I talk of parenting.

The Israeli study compared heterosexual couples with male homosexual couples, all first-time parents. In all the parents’ brains (the fathers in the heterosexual families were deeply involved with parenting) was revealed the activation of two neural pathways that comprise what is called the “parenting network". In the mothers, the pathway that processes deep emotions kicked in. Brain scans of the heterosexual fathers revealed activity in the other pathway dealing with learning.

This appears to reinforce the belief that mothers are chosen by nature to nurture. But the researchers also found equal, if not stronger, activation of the emotional pathway among the homosexual fathers, who also reported enhanced levels of oxytocin, popularly called the “love hormone" or “trust hormone". A whiff of oxytocin clearly helps strengthen bonds between parents and babies.

Older studies suggest that fathers deeply involved with parenting imbue their children with higher IQs all through their developmental years and into their teens, although the reasons for this are not clear.

Nurturing fathers are not widespread in the animal kingdom, but they are not absent. From seahorses to geese, a variety of species have males who take an active part in raising the young. What benefits might the males obtain from breaking a general evolutionary mould? This week, a study of the male stickleback, a fish known for its single parenthood, reported that the father’s brain grew larger than the absentee mother’s. In stickleback species where the male had abandoned care-giving, the female had larger brains than the male.

“One explanation for this pattern is that the cognitive demands of performing complex parental care may require increased brain size," wrote three zoologists from the University of British Columbia, Canada, in the journal Ecology and Evolution. “This idea is known as the parental brain hypothesis."

Although other factors need to be ruled out—and no one has ever checked to see if care-giving leads to larger brains among humans—I like this hypothesis.

A raft of studies has found no fundamental difference in the general intelligence of men and women, but there are differences in the way they process information. Does caring for children enhance intelligence in any way? Science has no answers yet for such questions. The stickleback study was one of the first to link parental care to brain size.

I do feel brainier these last three years as a hands-on father. I feel I’m writing better, my thoughts are clearer and I make associations faster. Of course, these creative pursuits occur during the few quiet times my daughter allows me. A big part of the day is spent in more mundane pursuits, such as making my daughter’s favourite roast chicken, playing with her in the park or trying to dissipate a puff of defiance. Perhaps, these pursuits are not as mundane as they appear.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology.

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