Some 95 percent of male mammals have little to no interaction with their children. Homo sapiens are one of the most notable exceptions, leading some scientists to think fatherhood is an important part of what makes us human.
Most theories for the family involvement of fathers invoke the familiar “Man the Hunter” characterization, in which dad protects and provides for his young.
While fathers do play key roles in securing the physical health of their children, they also can be important for the optimum development of psychological and emotional traits considered to be primarily human, such as empathy, emotional control and the ability to navigate complex social relationships.
Unlike many other animals, humans need their fathers well beyond the act that leads to conception, researchers are coming to realize.
Paternal prep school
There is plenty of time for this emotional hand-off. While other primate babies can fend for themselves in roughly a decade, human childhood stretches 18 to 20 years, said David Geary of the University of Missouri and author of “Male, Female: Evolution of Human Sex Differences” (American Psychological Association, 1998).
Also, anthropologists speculate that the relative helplessness of human children has made multiple caregivers a vital necessity–that encourages bringing dad into the picture. Even today, in both traditional and industrialized communities, a father’s presence correlates with improved health and decreased child mortality, Geary said.
Evolutionarily speaking, he added, the kid-phase probably lengthened as dads got more involved. With an extra person dedicated to caring for them, kids have no need to rush towards adulthood.
Kids also learn from fathers during a unique form of papa play. Unlike mothers, fathers tend to roughhouse with their children.
“They rile them up, almost to the point that they are going to snap, and then calm them down,” Geary said.
This pattern teaches kids to control their emotions–a trait that garners them popularity among superiors and peers, he said.
Parenting for the grandkids
When children have warm relationships with their father, as well as calm home lives, they tend to sexually mature later. Their bodies intuit they are safe and time is taken perfecting social skills before entering the real world, Geary said.
The extra practice gives children a competitive edge. As adults, they are more likely to form secure relationships, achieve stable social standing and become able parents. In this sense, a father who takes care of his children also gives his grandchildren a leg up.
Being raised by more than one person also enhances social skills, theorizes anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, author of “Mothers and Others” (Belknap Press, 2009). Children not only grow up more emotionally secure, they are better at taking another’s perspective–a skill critical to our socially-reliant species.
In traditional communities, especially during infancy, extra caregivers are usually female kin, such as grandmothers and aunts, Hrdy writes. But in nuclear families, fathers play this role.
When father-child relations are strained or chaotic, the insecurity can translate biologically as a message to grow up fast, Geary said. There is an unconscious sense that “if you are going to reproduce at all, you better start early,” he said. As a result, girls reach menarche sooner and form clingy relationships, while boys become aggressive and sexually exploitive.