Why a father figure can give your children the breaks in life they need

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Far from their family role diminishing, Mairi Macleod finds the man about the house has a huge influence in determining a youngster’s development, including their IQ

MUCH has been made in the press recently about the idea that men are becoming superfluous and marginalised in family life and that their role is diminishing.

But new research has revealed that the involvement of fathers can make a huge difference to outcomes in terms of IQ and the social mobility of their children.

It seems though, that fathers vary in the efforts they make, with dads who are well educated and have professional or managerial jobs getting more involved with their kids than fathers who are in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs. Why should this be?

In an effort to find out, Daniel Nettle, an evolutionary psychologist, of Newcastle University, examined data from the National Child Development study, which is an ongoing investigation of more than 17,000 British people born in a single week in March 1958.

Each of these individuals has been monitored medically and sociologically through regular examinations and interviews over the years.

Nettle’s findings, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, demonstrate that, where father involvement was greater, children had higher IQ scores at age 11. But he found that this made more of a difference where the father was of higher social class.

“If someone’s going to teach you to play tennis it helps if they’re a good tennis player themselves,” says Nettle. “Similarly, the more well educated your dad is, the more he’s able to help with your education.”

Nettle does acknowledge, however, that fathers with low educational skills could well be good at teaching their kids practical skills or other behaviours that weren’t measured in the study. According to the findings, the benefits of having a hands-on dad are ongoing through life. The study found that the more involved a father was during childhood, the greater the upward social mobility of his child, and these effects were still apparent when the son or daughter reached the age of 42.

But for these beneficial effects for children to materialise, fathers have to be more than just present. Children whose dads were at home but left all the child-rearing to the mother didn’t do any better than those who didn’t have a father living with them at all.

So the father who takes his kids out to play sport, or makes sandcastles with them or who simply gets involved in what they are doing, is really making a difference to the future prospects of his children.

Family size has an impact too. The study revealed that the more children in the family, the less investment by the father in an individual child.

This is understandable, since there is only so much time and energy to go round. A higher number of siblings was linked with lower IQ and less upward social mobility. But Nettle says that siblings can help each other and that the developmental costs of having siblings only kick in significantly in big families.

“Having one sibling is fine, or even a couple,” Nettle says.

“But when you get to three or four [children] – particularly the later siblings – they are the ones who suffer [in terms of reduced attention from dad].”

Apart from the obvious transmission of skills such as teaching kids to read, it is hard to say how father involvement actually works to benefit children in their IQ and social mobility measures. Nettle speculates that it could be to do with the mind-set fostered in children.

“It may be that dad getting heavily involved gives you clues that you’re living in a world where it’s worth working at things for the long term and a world that’s relatively emotionally safe,” he says.

The study doesn’t suggest that there is something particularly special about dads, however, and Nettle says that it may well be just as beneficial for the involvement with the kids to come from a grandmother, a friend or a lesbian partner of the mother.

“Infants need a lot of input in their development and another individual doing that [in addition to the mum] is good,” he says.

But the thorny issue is the fact that fathers at the bottom end of the socio- economic spectrum are not having as much input into their children’s lives as other men. This has created much hand-wringing among politicians who are keen to keep dads with their families in order to reverse a downward spiral of father absence, poor education and deprivation.

The explanation for this, according to Nettle, is likely to come down simply to costs and benefits. Lower status men are not able to influence the social mobility of their children to the same extent as their better educated, higher-status counterparts, so there is less pay-off for them in getting involved with their kids.

Biologically speaking, this makes sense but that does not mean it’s a good thing or that it cannot be changed.

One of the take-home messages from Nettle’s study is that if measures can be put in place to improve the education and attainment of young men from a low socio-economic background, then the benefits will be felt not just by them but also by their children, who will benefit through greater involvement with their dads.

&#149 If you would like to help with Daniel Nettle’s research, go to www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/daniel.nettle/volunteer.htm