Can the court force you to vaccinate your children?
The continuing roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme has brought back the debate on the safety and long-term implications of administrating vaccines.
Similar to when Andrew Wakefield released his false conclusions that the MMR vaccine could be linked directly to autism, a minority of people fundamentally opposed to vaccinations have found a voice.
The speed at which vaccines for Covid-19 have been approved appears to be at the root of concerns. People who may have previously been pro-vaccine may now have doubts – particularly parents considering vaccinating their children.
And while children are not currently in line to receive the vaccine, the current situation shines a spotlight on the difficulties they face if separated parents have very different beliefs about childhood vaccinations.
The law on vaccines
Vaccines are not compulsory by law.
However, there have been several recent court cases that have dealt with childhood vaccinations, including Re H (A Child: Parental Responsibility: Vaccination, a case where a local authority wanted to vaccinate a child in its care against the father’s wishes; and M v H and P and T  EWFC 93, a private law case where the judge ruled that NHS scheduled vaccinations (i.e. MMR and others) were in the best interests of the children despite the mother’s objection.
The general principles from the family court are that if the vaccine is approved by the regulator and in the child’s best interests, the court will almost certainly rule in favour of administering the vaccine.
Putting aside the arguments for and against, from a child law perspective, this issue is no different from other issues that can arise between parents regarding what the law terms as “specific issues” about their children. These include decisions about which school they should go to, what religious education they should receive or the medical treatment they should have.
So what options do you have if you cannot agree on ‘specific issues’ with your ex-partner?
Resolve between yourselves
The best approach, if possible, is for parents to agree directly with each other on any arrangements and specific issues as they are the right people to make decisions concerning their children.
Family counselling or mediation
However, this is not possible in certain situations, and the introduction of a neutral third-party can help.
Some separated parents can benefit from family counselling and other alternative dispute resolutions services, including mediation and collaborative law.
These routes can reduce the time and cost for everyone, avoid protracted court proceedings, benefit future relationships, have a far higher success rate, and put the child’s best interests first.
Going to court
If all else fails, then the decision will have to be passed to the family courts.
The Court can order what is known as a Specific Issue Order under Section 8 of the Children Act 1989.
In these circumstances, the Court will have to determine the issues based on what it believes to be in the children’s best interest and not necessarily what the parents want.
The court has particular regard to the factors at section s1 (3) of the Children Act 1989, the welfare checklist, namely:
Wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding);
Physical, emotional and educational needs;
Likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances;
Age, sex and background;
Any harm or risk of suffering;
The range of powers available to the court
At the moment, children are not due to be vaccinated against Covid-19. However, if the Covid-19 vaccination is approved for children and added to the NHS list of childhood vaccination, we may see an influx of applications for a specific issue order for a child to have the vaccine being made to the courts.
Considering the current backlog at the family courts, exacerbated by the pandemic, where possible, it always preferable for parents to resolve matters outside of the courts.
Get in touch
If you would like any legal advice as you cannot agree on ‘specific issues’ with your ex-partner please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here. More
Can the court force you to vaccinate your children?
Early emotional experiences leave children with much more than memories. Neuroscience suggests how these experiences can literally shape the ways in which children – and the adults they become – think. These early experiences contribute to the development of the biological mechanisms that process and interpret past and future experiences. They can influence brain circuitry that makes meaning from what has happened and predictions for what happens next, sometimes throughout children’s lives.
These insights from neuroscience place parents – not only their actions but also their well-being — at the heart of children’s brain development for two reasons.
First, parents are usually the source of their children’s earliest experiences and those who are likely to influence brain development. The nature of this relationship highlights the importance of understanding these experiences.
Second, parents also provide a buffer between the world and young children’s brain development. If parents can manage the stresses the world throws at them, then children may learn how to manage challenges better. Children are also more likely to be protected from biological responses to adverse events. In contrast, when parents are overtaxed and have difficulty regulating themselves, children may be more vulnerable to external stressors.
This understanding of how moms and dads influence children’s brain development makes a fresh and compelling case for supporting parenting. It also demands action to help ensure that parents are supported and buffered. It means that, if we care about children, then we as a society should care a lot for their parents.
“A parent is an extension of a child’s developing neurobiology – like an interpersonal scaffolding that affords a long childhood.”
This understanding of children’s neural development springs from observing how the brain functions. My colleagues and I have looked at a key communication inside a particular part of the brain — between the subcortical brain regions and the medial prefrontal cortex. These areas support and link emotional learning with subsequent emotional behaviors.
Subcortical brain regions learn at a deep level about positive and negative events, and they create emotional memories. Meanwhile, the medial prefrontal cortex is involved in managing behaviors, as well as in planning and decision making. These two areas are connected and therefore, communicate with each other. The patterns individuals establish in making meaning seem to influence how they interpret what happens and how they make decisions.
We have observed how these regions of the brain are influenced by early experiences. We can also see how they are then used in later life. This helps us understand how childhood experiences may play out and influence subsequent adult behaviors.
Forming the neurobiology of the childhood brain
What happens in the early building of these brain regions? They develop rapidly during early childhood so they are very vulnerable to environmental influences, whether nurturing or maltreating. These areas of the brain learn about security and threat, create emotional memories, and are involved in managing behavior and decision making. Intriguingly, we have also found that these areas are very sensitive to parents and to the messages or cues parents send to children.
Photo: NeONBRAND. Unsplash.
Why does it serve human welfare to be so heavily influenced by these early experiences? Because, as a species, humans have evolved to learn from our early environments so we are ready for what we encounter once we reach maturity. The human brain develops very slowly compared with other species – it’s on a “slow cook” setting. This is a great adaptation that gives us a lot of time to learn from our environments.
Some have said that childhood is a dress rehearsal for the performance of adulthood. The longer the dress rehearsal, the longer we get to stay immature, and the more efficient and powerful the adult brain becomes to help us tackle the drama on life’s stage.
A child’s brain is primed to learn from its closest environment, especially early in life. That makes family and parents a big influence on emotional development. Human children spend a very long time with their parents, compared with other species. This time affords them a lengthy period of brain plasticity — the first two decades of life — during which they can do the massive amount of learning required for the sophisticated set of behaviors human adults need.
The role of parents’ neurobiology
Although parents are not the sole source of input, they provide the bulk of that learning. Part of that learning, especially early in life, springs from the way parents regulate their children’s stress biology (consciously or not). The neurobiology involved in social and emotional behavior is enriched with stress hormone receptors that prompt the body to respond biologically to what is happening. However, the mere physical presence of a parent can reduce the release of these stress hormones in a child.
Mom or dad can also decrease the firing of a child’s amygdala, one of the brain’s subcortical structures that is involved in learning about fear. A parent is an extension of a child’s developing neurobiology –like an interpersonal scaffolding that affords a long childhood. However, this scaffolding can also create a perilous situation when it is difficult for a caregiving environment to be an effective buffer of threat or may even be a source of threat, rather than security, to the child.
“[We must] ensure that parents are supported and buffered. It means that, if we care about children, then we as a society should care a lot for their parents.”
The power of parents as buffers has been demonstrated in studies with rodents. In an experiment that associated a meaningless stimulus – such as peppermint odor – with a mild shock to the foot, young rats learned to dislike the odor (as you and I would) and their amygdala responded to that learning. However, when the rat’s parent was present, the developing rodent, despite smelling the scent and experiencing the shock, did not avoid the smell. Functionally, the presence of the parent blocked the young rodent’s amygdala from reacting. Indeed, the rodent actually showed a preference for the odor. This sounds bizarre, but we have duplicated these findings in experiments with preschool-age children.
These reactions occur because early in life, humans are primed, as dependents on their parents, to form preferences for things associated with them – regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant the stimulus. For example, my father smoked cigars. I know the smell is unpleasant. However, that odor was learned in the context of my attachment to my father, so I remain drawn to this stimulus. Most people can probably think of things associated with the home (“the nest”) to which they are attracted, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. This response is part of a young animal’s survival strategy.
Usually this system works well — it keeps us close to our parents, the nest, and the developmental benefits mom and dad bring. However, this system may also explain why, even in the context of harsh early environments, children still form attachments to their parents and things associated with them. This understanding helps explain why children often resist being separated from a parent even where there is maltreatment. It highlights the difficult and complex issues involved in separating any child from his or her parent.
The adult brain and its inheritance from childhood
Next, let us think about the adult brain: How do these brain circuits, shaped by early experiences during childhood, work later in life? Studies show that these neural circuits are activated when adults are trying to manage strong emotions, say, after a really bad day at work or when someone needs to calm down. The same neurobiology – between the prefrontal cortex and the subcortical regions – is involved when we lack complete information and need to fill in the gaps to understand fully what is happening.
Taken together, these observations of the brain suggest that early experiences may influence future behavior by providing a template for understanding how the world works. One person’s templates differ from another’s. Such templates are presumably supported, at least in part, by subcortical regions and the medial prefrontal cortex.
In situations of incomplete knowledge, a template influences an individual’s predictions of what a situation means and guides the response. Thus, matching what behavioral psychologists described more than 60 years ago, neuroscience can provide a biological model of how early experiences with parents and other caregivers form templates that influence how adults operate socially and emotionally, sometimes throughout their lives.
To care for children, care for their parents
All this demonstrates how important it is that parents themselves feel supported and are well-regulated. When parents are overly distressed, they may find it difficult to effectively buffer their children’s stress biology. However, when parents themselves are well and feel relatively secure, they are probably more effective than any other intervention in managing their children’s emotional reactions.
Parents are powerful; they are the conduits of the emotional world to their children. This is easy to see in everyday life: If parents react well to something, their child often will do the same. If parents respond in a calm way, their child will likely follow that lead. In certain senses, parents are an extension of their children’s developing brain. For that reason, we should consider: How can we support families so parents regulate themselves well to help their children become well-regulated?
Certain policies around parenting place children’s mental health at risk. For example, imagine the problems caused by the policy of separating children from parents who tried to cross from Mexico to the United States without visas. There are other areas of policy to consider. For example, how should we shape employment practices to ensure that mothers and fathers are sufficiently present in their children’s lives to provide a calm buffer against adverse experiences? How can we ensure parents’ mental, physical, and economic well-being so their wellness protects their children?
Childhood adversity is the leading environmental risk factor for mental health problems. Many of these problems are preventable – they are not genetically determined from birth. That’s why, if we are serious about caring for children, we must care for parents.
Parents ask me, “What is the best parenting advice you can offer?” I tell them, “Do what you can to take care of your well-being, to make sure you are feeling safe, and to manage your own emotions in a healthy way. When you feel this way, that gets translated to your children in a powerful way.”
Header photo: Gita Krishnamurti. Unsplash. More
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children in the United States are struggling with remote learning and emotionally distressed by the absence of social interactions. But significant numbers of children in the world do not have access to the Internet or to any education during the pandemic.
Children are our future. Yet about 33 million children worldwide are displaced and most of them are out of school. Refugee children are a case in point. More than 92% of refugee children live in developing countries. Lack of education during COVID-19 has the potential to become an even more destructive pandemic.
Rohingya children are receiving no education during the pandemic
In August 2017, more than 742,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. More than 800,0000 Rohingya refugees now live in Cox’s Bazar in the largest and most crowded refugee camp in the world, and more than half are children and adolescents. Prior to the pandemic, children in Rohingya refugee camps were not allowed to receive education in local schools, barring them from opportunities to integrate into the local community in Bangladesh. As a result of the lockdown due to the pandemic, about 315,000 Rohingya children and adolescents lost access to education in the camps’ more than 6,000 learning institutions, which closed in mid-March 2020. In January 2020, the government of Bangladesh promised to give Rohingya children access to education and skills training, but we know little about the fine points of the pledge because the pandemic has stalled any progress.
“They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, do not have access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future, from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life.”
For many decades, Rohingya parents in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have seen their children being killed, maimed, violated, abducted, attacked in schools and hospitals, and denied a chance at a decent life. The situation was so bad for these and other refugee children worldwide that in 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1261 to protect children in conflict regions for the first time. But Rohingyas in Bangladesh continue to live in danger. The lack of access to education is likely to result in parents marrying their children off at an early age or losing them to human trafficking. This means that generations of children will not realize their potential.
Considering these issues, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner of Bangladesh agreed that “it will definitely help” to educate children in the camp. Yet despite similar language from policymakers, a government directive in 2019 banned Internet access in the camp, so during the pandemic, even remote learning is not an option for children there.
Photo: taken at a learning center by Fatima Zahra in October 2019 (before the lockdown). It shows two siblings – getting ready to go home after school. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar.
The violence against children affects not only the refugees in the camp but also the social architecture of the host community. Refugee children in Bangladesh are a big part of the future of the country’s political economy and national security. Many fear that the inequalities and violence in the camps already contribute to enhanced violence in the host communities surrounding the camps.
How to right the wrong against refugee children: Three steps
Sadly, the fate of Rohingya children in Bangladesh is similar to that of most refugee children in the world. They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, lack access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life through three steps.
First, children need access to high-quality education that is in both the children’s mother tongue and the language of the host country.
Language of instruction determines the effectiveness of education. It also determines how children perceive their future (in the host country) and how they are accepted as people from another country (their home country). Rohingya children were allowed some form of education in the Rohingya language before the pandemic in the informal learning institutes in the camps, but the host community looks down on Rohingya culture and language so the children did not learn about their home country.
“We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments,including the newly elected U.S. government, the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.”
Bangladesh should give refugee children access to the curriculum in public schools in the country. This will create a cultural bridge between refugee and host community children. The Bangladeshi government has been very clear from the start that they do not want to do this. While learning one’s first language has tremendous benefits, it also helps facilitate learning another language (such as Bangla and English) when the children are living in Bangladesh. Children who speak the Rohingya language can build on the language and literacy they know to acquire another language.
Second, children in the camp need mental health support. Many children and adults in the camp are suffering from acute depression and anxiety. These children need teachers who are trained to support the learning of children who have experienced severe trauma, anxiety, and depression, and who continue to live with constant uncertainty. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the camps are invested in supporting children’s education – assistance from the local and national governments will mean they can scale their efforts in training teachers to extend high-quality education to the children.
Finally, people in the camp need access to high-speed Internet. The first two steps that are needed to improve education are possible only if refugee children have access to the outside world.
Using the Internet is crucial for children to access both education and mental health support. NGOs and companies can set up Wifi hotspots throughout the camp, as has been done in the past in other camps. Once that happens, children can access remote learning programs. Parents also need access to the relevant technologies (such as smartphones and the Internet) so they can oversee their children’s learning, which is instinctive for most parents.
As leading post-colonial scholarHomi Bhabha said, “the refugee condition makes the most stringent and severe demands on the national community or the ‘world community’ to recognize the global right of hospitality which is at the heart of human survival itself … for a ‘good life lived with others.’” We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments (including the newly elected U.S. government), the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.
Closing the education gap for refugee children will move us one step closer to building a strong and diverse leadership for the world.
Header photo: taken during a focused group discussion with Rohingya children and adolescents about their learning preferences and aspirations as part of a research study at the South Asia Institute at Harvard University. The picture shows a child solving some basic math problems to demonstrate what he learned back in his school in Myanmar. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar. More
In December 2020, Gitanjali Rao, a 15-year-old inventor from Colorado, was named Kid of the Year by Newsweek. Showered with accolades, children like Rao are often treated as if they are unicorns, completely different than others their age. But that need not be the case. Virtually everyone begins life with the necessary building blocks to construct new ideas (defined here as a solution to a problem or an explanation for phenomena). However, by age five, only some children are still on a path to become adept at such thinking, while most leave it farther and farther behind. But such a fate is not inevitable.
What would it take to help all children be able and eager to pursue ideas? The answer lies in two processes that begin during the early years: inquiry and invention. If you have ever watched three-year-olds at play, you have seen how children first pursue ideas. It usually begins with a problem: A child wants to fashion a tent out of blankets and pillows, understand why some bugs fly and others do not, or figure out how far the stars extend in the sky. Parents and teachers can fan the flames of children’s natural drive to think things through. To do so, adults should give children plenty of opportunities to solve the problems that grab them, spend time talking with them about the intellectual puzzles that haunt them, and guide them to test their speculations and revise their ideas. Parents and teachers should also be willing to talk with children about things that are unfamiliar, unknown, and perhaps even uncomfortable. By building on children’s powerful drive to inquire, invent, and mull over complex problems, adults can help them become avid, supple, and astute thinkers.
“What would it take to help all children be able and eager to pursue ideas? The answer lies in two processes that begin during the early years: inquiry and invention.”
Eager to learn from the start
Babies are born curious, equipped with antenna for detecting novelty. From early on, they notice when a new object or event comes within view or earshot. Research suggests that infants become familiar with their mothers’ tone and cadence while in utero. Soon after birth, most babies respond differently when someone other than their caregiver talks to them. Within months, whenever they see something different from what they have seen before, their heartbeat slows, their breath quickens, and their skin produces more moisture — all signs that they have taken notice.
Watching visual patterns or images projected onto a screen, babies look longer at the one they have never seen before. They absorb the new phenomena, looking and listening until they see something that is no longer surprising. But they quickly go beyond using just their ears and eyes. Soon enough, babies expand their investigative repertoire to include touching, grasping, licking, and mouthing. By two-and-a-half years, they have acquired an explosively more powerful tool for investigating the world: questions. Toddlers can ask about items around them, but also about the past, the future, and the unseen. Since so much of their daily lives brings them face to face with new sights and sounds, their novelty detectors go off all day long, leading to a day crammed with investigation.
“Adults should give children plenty of opportunities to solve the problems that grab them, spend time talking with them about the intellectual puzzles that haunt them, and guide them to test their speculations and revise their ideas.”
Compared to other mammals, human newborns seem helpless; after all, other mammals walk and nourish themselves within hours of life. Yet by their third year, humans have learned a dazzling array of information and skills never available to the smartest dog, horse, or pig. The newborn cries and makes vegetative noises, but the three-year-old talks in full sentences; can carry on complex conversations; refers to the past and the future; and can tell intricate stories that include characters, plots, and surprise endings. Children’s urge to investigate explains how helpless infants, who merely burp, gurgle, kick, and cry, become savvy members of the community in just three years. Curiosity is the psychological foundation that explains the vast terrain of knowledge and skills acquired, apparently effortlessly, by all typically developing children.
Photo: Difei Li. Creative Commons.
The power of specific interests
But the endless barrage of surprises and mysteries does not last forever. By the time children are three, they have a huge working knowledge of their everyday routines and environments. They know what will be on the breakfast table, the kinds of things their family members typically do and say, and what will happen on a trip to the grocery store. The everyday world becomes the familiar background to more distinctive events and objects, which call out for further explanation and mastery.
At this point, children are ready to be somewhat choosier. They begin to play a more active role in deciding what aspects of daily life they can skim over and which to zero in on. While virtually all 18-month-olds seem inquisitive most of their waking days, four-year-olds are likely to seem blasé about many aspects of daily life: the trip to school, a visit from a neighbor, or the pigeons out the window. During this period, when daily life becomes mundane, most children develop specific interests. One becomes fascinated with bugs, another intent on watching to see what makes people laugh, and a third absorbed by small gadgets. But not all children focus on objects or creatures. Some collect information about the invisible or ungraspable, for instance, god, death, or infinity. In an examination of a large database of two-five year olds talking at home, children often asked many questions about such topics across relatively long periods.
“Helping children become capable of and interested in developing ideas requires concerted effort from adults. And here the pandemic has, ironically, provided an opportunity.”
For example, in the following exchange, a mother had just explained to her four-year-old daughter Laura that their pet bird had died. “He took his nest down and he knew he was dying and he got himself ready,” the mother said. At various points throughout the day, Laura said:
“He knew he was dying?”
“How did he know he was dying?”“I don’t want to die.”“I wonder what it feels like to be dead.”
To sum up, although it is often invisible to adults, young children collect information about a wide variety of topics, and such knowledge lays the groundwork for future ideas. However, inquiry tells only part of the story.
The role of invention
Spend 15 minutes watching four-year-olds at play and you quickly notice that they don’t spend all their time investigating. Just as often, they are devising new objects out of various small items (e.g., string, silverware, blocks), planning imaginary scenarios, or mapping out the rules for new games. In other words, they are busy inventing. Just think of the child who fashions an airplane out of a small cardboard box, uses shoelaces to lock a sibling inside the bathroom as a prank, or lays bath towels over an upside-down chair to create a fort. All these actions are simple inventions. Meanwhile, children are engaging in other more intangible inventions — stories that recreate an upsetting experience, charts of made-up superheroes, and explanations of zero. These, too, involve new combinations of familiar elements to achieve a goal. But that is just the first stage of inventing.
The road that leads from the earliest and simplest constructions to the more complex solutions of older children and adults is somewhat circuitous. Research has shown that very young children are stumped by some aspects of innovation. In one study, young children were invited to retrieve an attractive sticker from a small basket placed far down a narrow plastic tube. Offered various materials, including pipe cleaners, to reach the sticker, four-years-olds did not think to bend the pipe cleaner and use it as a hook. They could perform all the requisite actions, such as bending the pipe cleaner or selecting the correction solution when asked to choose from several options. But they could not seem to coordinate all the elements needed to solve the problem.
Researchers describe this as a difficulty with ill-defined problems, a skill essential for more sophisticated thinking. Some new data suggest that young children are more adept than previously thought when solving problems that they find imaginatively compelling. In our lab, when children had to get a small character across some water to rescue another character, even four-year-olds readily used available materials to devise bridges, catapults, air balloons, and stilts.
Meanwhile, just as children get better at orchestrating many elements of invention, they appear to lose a valuable asset. They become more rigid at using familiar objects in new ways, often stuck on whatever purpose they think an object was intended for. While the developmental picture of invention is complex, it points to one clear conclusion: When children invent, whether a fort, a story, or a new game, they use most of the tools required for more sophisticated problem solving; they use or combine familiar elements in new ways, thinking of different ways to achieve a goal, imagining future outcomes, and revising their plans.
Understanding the idea of ideas
During the early years, inquiry and invention develop separately. Before these concepts can be harnessed together to pursue more formal ideas and solve challenging problems, children need one more thing: the ability to treat one’s thoughts as an object — a mental representation that can be examined, revised, or reconsidered. We now have evidence that between the ages of five and six, children begin to understand the idea of ideas. When experimenters asked children to explain what an idea is, four-year-olds cast it in concrete terms: a plan of action or an object they made. For example:
Child: “You could make anything you want, if you have one [an idea].”
Experimenter: “So, what is your idea?”Child: “To make a knot and it close.” [sic]
But by the time children are six, most understand that an idea is a product of the mind and that there are many kinds of ideas. For example:
Child: “Oh, an idea is something that you think!”Experimenter: “It’s something that you think?”
Child: “It’s amazing, or it can be kind of scary.”
The skills required to come up with illuminating explanations of puzzling phenomena and novel solutions to knotty problems are within reach of most children. But this capacity is not inevitable, nor is it simply the natural result of learning to spell, add, or write book reports. Helping children become capable of and interested in developing ideas requires concerted effort from adults. And here the pandemic has, ironically, provided an opportunity. Thrust into extended proximity with their children while they play, do school work, and even attend classes remotely, parents are in a good position to notice what and how children are thinking. When children gather information to answer their own questions (however unacademic or odd those questions may seem), mull over perplexing mysteries, speculate, outline probable or impossible outcomes, or consider alternative perspectives, they are practicing the skills essential to forming ideas. If parents and teachers learn to deliberately foster curiosity and invention, many more children than Gitanjali Rao will be on the path to innovation.
Header photo: Jay Hsu. Creative Commons. More
As children move into their preteen years, they increasingly differentiate between rules and obey the ones they think are legitimate. One of the most promising ways to bolster parents’ legitimacy is to treat children fairly.
Parents often try to make their children comply with rules through punishments, but in our study, parental practices of procedural justice predicted obedience more strongly than did punishments. Procedural justice practices include allowing children to give their side of the story, explaining to them why they are being reprimanded, and talking politely.
“Research shows that parents’ legitimacy increases when they are fair judges.”
The study assessed a diverse group of 697 Brazilian 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds once a year for three years. Disciplinary practices were classified into constructive practices (e.g., removing privileges, reprimanding verbally, grounding) and harsh practices (e.g., threatening, physically punishing , yelling). Harsh practices actually increased disobedience, possibly because they diminished perceived parental legitimacy. In other words, when parents punished their children harshly, instead of promoting obedience, it made the parents look less credible.
This study also allowed children to differentiate between issues. It is well established that, as children develop, they discriminate between domains over which parents have authority and grant more legitimacy to issues of safety and morality than to issues of convention or personal preference. In the study, the children were presented with 10 common household rules and asked if it was legitimate for their parents to have that rule. The issues with the highest legitimacy across all three years were substance use and truth telling. The issues that declined the most in legitimacy were media use, curfews, homework, and dating. And the strongest predictor of individual obedience was issue-specific legitimacy. Thus, children obeyed the rules over which they thought their parents had legitimate authority.
The study also asked about parents’ global legitimacy, in other words, whether youth thought their parents had the right to make the rules and whether they trusted their parents to make the right decisions. Youth’s evaluations of global legitimacy also strongly predicted their obedience.
“One of the most promising ways to bolster parents’ legitimacy is to treat children fairly.”
Prior research has established that authorities with high levels of procedural justice are typically legitimized. In other words, if your child thinks you are a fair judge, he or she may obey you because he or she sees you as a legitimate authority figure. However, harsh disciplinary strategies may backfire for the same reasons. Instead of eliciting a healthy fear, they may unintentionally undermine parental legitimacy.
Based on this study, parents should:
Avoid harsh discipline because it tends to backfire in the long term.
Emphasize procedural justice (hear youth’s perspective, be polite, provide explanation).
Stick to issues of morality and safety – it may be a losing battle to enforce other rules.
Header photo: Brian Evans. Creative Commons. More
The start of 2021 sees a major new contribution to family court practice by child development researchers. A 35-page “Consensus position based on the concerted body of attachment research” has been published, under the names of 70 leading attachment researchers. It is the most comprehensive statement ever produced on how attachment theory can be applied in family courts worldwide in the best interests of children. It also shows ways in which attachment theory is frequently misused.
This summary highlights the key points in the statement, but family court professionals who wish to learn more about this important topic should read the document in full. References to page numbers are included in this summary to enable quick access to the more detailed account.
The “best interests of the child” has become the fundamental consideration in family courts. The concept is included in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989): “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration (#3.1)” (p. 5).
This article addresses four issues:
The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
What is attachment theory?
Three attachment principles for family court practice
Eight pieces of advice for family courts
1. The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
A fundamental difficulty applying attachment science in family courts is that the science and the courts start from very different places. The measures used in attachment research are accurate enough to produce average scores that predict patterns of future child development across groups, but they are not sensitive enough to be used as diagnostic tools for individual families, which is what courts need (p. 5). Correlations found in attachment science, while statistically significant, may not be substantial, and rarely provide the basis for making a prediction about one individual (p. 21). Even the more fine-grained attachment assessments have been designed and validated for standardized contexts and may not apply in highly charged situations common in family courts.
“Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families.”
Therefore, specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments. Other measures include the child’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development, and very importantly, the capacity of a parent to provide care or be helped to develop caring skills. Above all, it is crucial to assess risk of harm to the child. Every one of these factors is hard to assess, not least because each can change over time, particularly if the assessment is made at a moment of heightened trauma and change (pp. 15-16, 20-21, 30-32).
Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families. This creates an environment in which over-confidence about the application of attachment classifications or concepts to individual cases is common (p. 21). Because of the complexity of cases in family courts, proceedings can be influenced by personal opinions or cultural and social values and norms (pp. 5, 6, 32).
2. What is attachment theory?
2.1 Defining attachment
The 70 attachment researchers who contributed to the statement defined attachment this way:
Attachment refers to an affectional bond in which an individual is motivated to seek and maintain proximity to, and comfort from, particular familiar persons (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Children are born with a predisposition to develop this motivation in relation to significant others (“attachment figures”) who have been sufficiently present and responsive. For children, these persons are usually their caregivers. The motivation is held to be governed by an attachment behavioral system. This system seeks to maintain a certain degree of proximity between child and attachment figures, with the setting for desirable level changing dynamically in response to internal and external cues. The motivation to increase proximity is activated when a person is alarmed by internal cues (e.g. pain, illness) and/or external cues (e.g. fear-evoking stimuli, separation), and manifests in a tendency to seek the availability of an attachment figure. When the attachment system is strongly activated, some kind of physical contact with an attachment figure is generally sought, especially by infants, though this contact can also be achieved by non-physical means later in development … Caregivers who have regularly interacted with and protect the infant when the infant has been alarmed usually come to be represented by the infant as someone he or she can turn to when in need (i.e. as a safe haven). Importantly, even the most sensitive and responsive of caregivers necessarily “tune out” from time to time – to visit the bathroom, make tea, or even temporarily hand over caregiving to another trusted person familiar to the infant, while the caregiver attends to other matters. Thus, that a caregiver provides a safe haven does not necessitate that this person is constantly accessible for the infant physically, or even psychologically, or that the child is securely attached to that caregiver. Conversely, being physically present does not necessarily mean that a caregiver is emotionally available (pp. 7-8).
Photo: Yogendra Singh. Unsplash.
2.2 Attachment quality is measured by secure/insecure, not strong/weak
In attachment research, trained and certified coders measure the quality of attachment through standardized observation of children’s relative ability to use their caregiver as a safe haven to which they can turn for protection, and as a secure base from which they can explore the environment (p. 8).
Secure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be available in times of need. Insecure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be relatively unavailable (p. 8).
Insecure attachment is not weak and is extremely common and normal. Insecure attachment is an important strategy for children to maximize the potential availability of a caregiver who is unavailable or insensitive. An insecure attachment does not mean that the caregiver is never a safe haven for the child (pp. 10, 17).
Insecure attachment is observed in three forms:
Insecure-avoidant is when the child does not seek his or her familiar person when mildly alarmed, but remains near (p. 17).
Insecure-resistant is when the child seeks proximity but is not readily comforted and can show anger toward the caregiver. Both this and insecure-avoidant behavior are termed organized insecure attachment because they are coherent and work to increase the availability of less sensitive carers (p. 17).
Disorganized attachment is when the child is conflicted, confused, or apprehensive about a family caregiver in a situation of mild to moderate alarm. It is often associated with frightened, frightening, or dissociative behavior on the part of the caregiver, or a caregiver’s hostility, withdrawal, or maltreatment (p. 18).
All these forms of insecure attachment correlate with later compromised child development, but even in the case of disorganized attachment, the associations are not strong enough to infer that observing insecure attachment foretells poor development outcomes for a specific child (p. 19).
Furthermore, researchers observe patterns of attachment in carefully controlled conditions that involve only mild to moderate stress for a child. Family courts commonly deal with children in situations of intense stress. Disorganized behavior on the part of a seriously stressed child does not necessarily imply disorganized attachment (p. 19).
“Specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments.”
2.3 Attachment disorder differs from insecure attachment
The negative effects of insecure attachments, as presented earlier, are far surpassed by the potential damage of attachment disorder.
Two types of attachment disorder have been defined. Reactive attachment disorder is when a child shows a lack of care-seeking toward any caregiver when alarmed. Disinhibited social engagement disorder is when a child is over-friendly with unfamiliar people.
Reactive attachment disorder is seen in children who have experienced extremely inadequate caregiving in their early years, for example, those who have lived in institutions. The symptoms are reversible if the child is placed in a stable caregiving environment (p. 19).
2.4 Children form attachments with multiple caregivers
There is a widespread belief in the importance of one psychological parent, which emerges from the practice in some cultures of a single parent being the primary caregiver. A related idea has emerged: that an attachment with one person competes with other attachment relationships. Bowlby himself started with the idea of a single attachment in his 1969 book, but had changed his mind by the time he wrote his second book in 1984.
The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously if they have sufficient time with the caregivers and if the caregivers provide enough of a safe haven in times of need. For decades, the vast majority of attachment researchers have believed that children benefit from having more than one safe haven (p. 6, 11-12).
The presence of multiple caregivers is the norm in many cultural settings across the world. Multiple caregivers and a network of attachment relationships constitute a protective factor in child development when caregiving is inconsistent (e.g., a caregiver is unwell or unavailable). This does not imply that the number of attachments is limitless, nor that a child may not prefer some caregivers over others. A child’s preferences are often shaped by the current accessibility of one carer over another and do not seem to depend on relative attachment quality with the caregivers. However, in the context of inter-parental conflict and custody disputes, less is known about how children’s preferences play out (p. 11-12).
While all attachments with regular caregivers are important, researchers’ opinions differ about whether a most familiar carer should be afforded priority in the early years. Variations in context – such as cultural and family factors – might influence the organization of continuous contact with different caregivers (p. 12).
“Insecure attachment is not weak and is very common – the average rate of insecure attachment in the general population is nearly half.”
2.5 New attachments can form
When a child and new caregiver spend sufficient time together, attachments usually form. The time together can activate not only the child’s attachment system but also a complementary caregiving system in the caregiver. Both are malleable. This is a relevant consideration in decisions about custody and overnight stays. However, no empirical research shows that overnight stays are a necessary condition for the development of an attachment relationship (p. 14).
Photo: Alan Wat. Creative Commons.
3. Three attachment principles for family court practice
In their statement, the researchers present three principles for family court practice based on a full consideration of attachment research.
Principle 1: A child needs to experience safe havens provided by particular, familiar, and non-abusive caregivers.
Two considerations are key:
Limited contact with a caregiver makes it more difficult for a child to form, enhance, and maintain expectations of that caregiver’s availability in times of need.
Almost all non-abusive and non-neglecting family-based care is likely to be better than institutional care (p. 25).
Principle 2: Safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it.
A safe haven requires particular familiar relationships and sufficiently continuous interaction with these caregivers. Even if another caregiving environment may be better in some way than the child’s current one, continuity of good enough care constitutes part of a child’s best interests. Disrupting existing attachments in favor of an “optimal” solution should be pursued with extreme caution (pp. 25-26).
Safe, continuous, good-enough care can be actively supported. Many studies and meta-analyses demonstrate effective interventions that improve caregiving quality. Many of these interventions are limited in time, typically lasting just 6 to 10 sessions (p. 26).
To this end, it is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving. The assessment also needs to consider a future time, if a current extreme state of distress diminishes the caregiver’s current ability (e.g., fear of loss of custody). Also, any particular intervention does not suit every caregiver, so alternatives should be made available (p. 32).
In families where roles were different prior to the separation, it is important to give the less experienced caregiver the opportunity to develop the ability to provide a safe haven (p. 12).
Bowlby put it this way in 1951: “Just as children are absolutely dependent on their parents for sustenance, so … are parents … dependent on greater society for economic provision. If a community values its children it must cherish their parents” (p. 28).
“The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously.”
Principle 3: Maintain a child’s existing safe havens if they don’t pose a threat.
A decision to maintain a child’s existing safe havens does not provide a blueprint for allocating time in shared care arrangements. Time must be sufficient for attachment relationships to be developed and maintained (p. 28).
This principle can also apply to foster care, where relationships with biological parents can be maintained during fostering. Similarly, relationships with foster carers can maintained after foster care (p. 29).
In addition, grandparents, step-parents, siblings, and extended family members can often provide a safe haven for children (p. 29).
Photo: Frank Mckenna. Unsplash.
4. Eight pieces of advice for family courts
1. Do not equate attachment quality with caregiver sensitivity.
Caregiver sensitivity – the ability to notice a child’s signals, interpret them correctly, and respond to them appropriately and in a timely way – is, of course, important and correlates with attachment. However, gender norms can influence how care is expressed, and measures of safe haven and caregiver sensitivity may be shaped by gendered assumptions about caregiving (pp. 8-9). For example, sensitive caregiving in mothers predicts secure attachment more than it does in fathers, suggesting that other factors play a greater role in father-child attachment.
2. Do not equate attachment quality with relationship quality.
Relationships are made up of more than attachment alone. Other factors, such as basic physical care, play, supervision, teaching/learning, setting standards for conduct, and discipline, are also important (p. 9).
3. Do not interpret one-off behaviors of children as reliably indicating attachment quality.
Children’s behaviors depend on context. Attachment is measured in very controlled contexts. A very frightened child behaves differently than a less frightened child. A child in a highchair may cry in response to a threatening noise, but not cry if he or she is free to move to the caregiver. Children’s behaviors are also a function of their individual temperaments (p. 9).
4. The Tender Years Doctrine is wrong.
The Tender Years Doctrine holds that custody automatically goes to the mother for children under a certain “tender” age. While this concept has been formally replaced in most countries by standards related to the best interests of the child, it remains influential (p. 13). In Israel, it remains the policy: custody automatically goes to the mother for children under the age of six. The researchers state: “We are in full consensus that the ultimate establishment of a network of attachment relationships is generally a protective factor in the long term and thus a desirable outcome in child development. We are also in full agreement that losses of and permanent separations from attachment figure are in themselves risk factors that should be prevented wherever possible in child development.” (p.13)
5. Overnight care with a second parent is not inherently harmful for children.
In the 1990s, researchers concluded that co-parenting arrangements that included overnight visits to the co-parent were associated with insecurity in a child’s attachment with the resident parent (Solomon & George, 1999). However, the data presented in the study actually showed that parental conflict, not overnight stays, was the problem. The inaccurate conclusion of this study has been quoted frequently to defend a position that is not supported by this or other evidence (p. 13).
The key question regarding decisions about overnight stays is whether the child experiences a safe haven with each caregiver. Of course, having a secure attachment does not preclude a child being unsettled for a time by unfamiliarity with, say, a new home. Also, the application of Principle 2 (safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it) requires attention to actively enabling the caregiver to develop a safe haven over time (p. 14).
“It is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving.”
6. Addressing and reducing conflict is key.
Inter-parental conflict and hostility undermine a parent’s own caring competencies and ability to let the other parent provide care. Interventions to reduce parental conflict are important (pp. 14-15).
If courts are clear about their decisions regarding custody and time allocation, they can increase parents’ capacity to overcome conflict. Similarly, if courts are clear about their commitment to the three principles outlined earlier, caregivers’ anxiety can be reduced and their motivation for cooperation increased (p. 33).
7. Ensure that family court professionals are adequately trained in attachment assessment.
While attachment theory is typically a mandatory part of professionals’ training, specialist training in assessing attachment quality is not. This can lead to attachment theory being either under-estimated or used with over-confidence. If assessments of attachment are used, they must be performed by formally trained observers (pp. 23, 31).
8. Take evidence directly from experts, not via representing parties.
Appeals to attachment in family courts would be less partial, more balanced, and more aligned with convergent evidence if courts called in experts, rather than the representing parties (p. 23).
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More playtime with dad during the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be one of the few positives to emerge for children from the virus. It could also serve as some compensation for children’s considerable losses in school learning and access to friends.
Many children may have benefited during this time from the special contribution of playing with fathers to their social, cognitive, and emotional development.
That’s because many fathers have spent more time at home during the pandemic. They have also spent more time caring for their children. While that shift has been particularly pronounced during the pandemic, according to official data, it also reflects a longer-term trend, going back 40 years, of gradually increasing paternal involvement.
On average, fathers spend a higher proportion of their time caring for children than mothers playfully interacting with their children. That share may have shifted during the pandemic, but the amount of time overall that dads spend playing is likely to have risen.
“The pandemic reminds policymakers how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives.”
Playing with dad helps children develop
Children’s extra playtime with their fathers matters for several reasons. First, when parents spend more time with their children, they strengthen their skills in areas that are crucial to play – understanding what interests children, following their lead, and generally being more sensitive to them. In short, many fathers have become more closely attuned to their children’s play and to the pace at which they learn.
Photo: Mikael Stenberg. Creative Commons.
Learning to be patient and follow a child’s lead can be challenging. Some young children take a long time to learn a new skill for the first time and once they have learned it, may want to perform the new skill again and again. Unattuned adults may wish to rush them, do it for them, or move on to something else.
Second, fathers’ play makes a measurable and considerable difference to outcomes for children. Playing with dad is consistently linked to children being able to learn better and make friendships. More playtime with dads is also associated with less anxiety and fewer behavioral problems for children, who are less likely to get in trouble at school or fight with their peers.
The special quality of fathers’ play
Third, fathers’ play has some special qualities. Typically, it exposes children to a second person who is important in their lives. It also allows children to experience styles of parenting that differ from those demonstrated by their mother. As a result, children are exposed to differences and surprises in a safe environment. This can help them build capacities to manage change and difficulties in relationships.
Focusing too much on dads’ rough and tumble play with their children is unwise. We should avoid making it emblematic of fatherhood. Lots of moms engage in this type of play, too. And many dads can also spend quiet time with their children, sitting with them and cuddling them, and we should not think of this as “un-dad-like” behavior. Nevertheless, rough and tumble play has real value and is an area in which many fathers feel confident.
“One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset.”
Even very young babies benefit from fathers’ play
The skills that fathers bring in playfully exciting young children can benefit not only toddlers but also young babies. In my studies on fathers’ playful interactions with 3-month-olds, fathers’ engagement predicted fewer behavioral problems at 12 months and higher cognitive scores at 2 years.
It’s important that dads understand these findings because some may lack confidence in and feel reticent about caring for their babies. They – and others – may subscribe to the mistaken view that dads’ impact on children’s lives begins later. We also need to fight the mistaken cultural belief that very young babies don’t notice much about what’s happening around them. After 20 years doing child development research, I know that babies have a great capacity to notice and learn from very early in their lives.
What should dads do?
One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset. Fathers can bring something important to their children, even and perhaps especially when they are very young. Dads might not feel confident at first, but they shouldn’t worry: They should just play and, with practice, they will get better at it. I advise fathers to try a range of activities beyond rough-and-tumble play. It’s also okay for fathers to sit quietly with a toy or a book and just snuggle up with their children. At least some of time, dads should slow down, follow their child’s lead, and play at their pace.
Photo: Humphrey Muleba. Creative Commons.
The pandemic has introduced stresses that can undermine play. When people are stressed, the focus of their attention narrows so they attend less well to their relationships. We have seen this shift in studies of the impact depression in fathers — there was a reduction in the surprises that fathers typically built into play with their children, who were subsequently exposed to a narrower range of play. So, as COVID-19’s effects continue, we should be mindful to protect parents’ mental health.
Overall, the pandemic highlights the important role of fathers in child development. The past year should help policymakers recognize how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives. It also reminds family service practitioners to emphasize, facilitate, and capitalize on the assets that fathers, as well as mothers, can bring to their children from the earliest ages.
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How central is hands-on, caring fatherhood to men’s roles in families? We know that many fathers are very capable caregivers. Data show that fathers in many parts of the world are doing more hands-on care than their own fathers did. Many dads warm to the role. And research demonstrates that involved fathering benefits children. But how much is interactive caring at the core of who men are as fathers? Is it a passing development, an aberration from men’s foundational, evolved roles over the history of our species: to be a hunter/breadwinner?
New anthropological research offers an intriguing answer. It suggests that caring fatherhood is not only core to men’s parenting, but that it may have come first in human evolution, before fathers provided food for their offspring. Indeed, if humans had not first developed early forms of caring fatherhood, then the provider father might never have arrived: Thus, “caring dad” may have laid the evolutionary foundations for “provider dad.”
This explanation springs from our attempts to understand a very distinctive and unusual feature about humans: We are virtually the only primates who routinely share large quantities of food with one another. Adult males, females, and children benefit from such sharing. Indeed, the pooling of high-energy food resources (such as meat and root vegetables) helps explain how humans evolved large, energetically costly brains that make up only a small percentage (~4%) of our body weight but require nearly 20% of the calories we burn each day. It also helps explain our unique family strategy of raising many very needy, slow-growing children at the same time, which sets us apart from other mammals, including other primates.
“These findings highlight direct caring for children as an important feature of men’s lives from early in human evolution.”
The advantages of food sharing can be seen in some contemporary societies that practice foraging (or hunting and gathering) to meet their food needs. Hunting can generate large, nutrient-dense food resources, but successful hunts of large animals are also unpredictable. Men’s specialization as hunters is generally possible only with the nutritional assurance provided by women’s more consistent foraging of plants, insects, and other small animals.
Photo: Humphrey Muleba. Unsplash.
Thus, it is clear why humans continued to share food after sharing had become established. The more difficult question is: How and why did it begin in the first place? Food sharing and role specialization can be costly to the sharers; you need reliable partners for it to pay off. Hunting is risky and was probably inconsistent in the deep past, with simple technology and rudimentary communication. So humans would not have hunted routinely – and would likely not have shared the proceeds widely – if there was no assured payback.
The evolution of sharing would have required a history of cooperation, trust, and reliability within communities, including between males and females. What conditions might have enabled such strong, prosocial relationships to have already emerged among early humans and our extinct ancestors? Through observation of non-human primate behaviors, my research team suggests an answer: Low-cost, basic forms of adult male care of infants, aiding mothers, helped pave the way for greater cooperation, including food sharing.
Non-human primate males offer rudimentary care
For example, in some baboon species, individual adult males in larger multi-male, multi-female social groups form close social bonds with females when they have an infant. These adult males are very tolerant of the infant. They provide protection against infanticide and from aggressors in the group. These baboon friendships between adult males and females emerge during pregnancy and often continue beyond weaning, but they dissolve if the infant dies. Thus, the male-female relationship is supported by a loose form of joint parental care, which can give the male a better chance of mating, though the female generally does not mate exclusively with that male.
Male mountain gorillas are also very tolerant of infants and juveniles, and interact with them, even though they do not seem to differentiate their own young from those of other males. This caring behavior may enhance the males’ attractiveness to females: Males who provide more direct care have more reproductive success, according to a recent study by my colleague, Stacy Rosenbaum. Likewise, macaque females in some species prefer males who interact with infants, according to recent data. So it seems that basic paternal care can emerge in primates even in non-monogamous situations when the males are unclear about paternity, which was long thought to be a major evolutionary barrier to committed fatherhood. This care for infants, and the relationship bonds that it builds with females, is low cost and thus possibly part of males’ mating effort.
We argue that similar low-cost behaviors could have evolved in early humans and then been ratcheted up through evolutionary time. Caring would have laid the social and trust foundations for the later emergence of more proactive, riskier, more costly food sharing. Such food sharing eventually led to subsistence specialization and resource pooling that became common in human families and communities. Thus, we argue that the caring father predated the provisioning father rather than vice versa.
Testosterone and caring capacities
Another indicator tells us about the ancientness and centrality of child care to men’s parenting: their biology. Nurturing caring is supported in men and regulated by variations in hormones such as testosterone and oxytocin. There is evidence that men with lower testosterone often engage in more prosocial, generous, and empathetic behavior than men with higher testosterone. Our team of researchers was the first to identify, in the Philippines and subsequently in other contexts, a relationship between lower testosterone in men and the amount of child care they do. In a large project that tracked men in their 20s over five years, testosterone levels dropped significantly when men became partnered fathers.
“This perspective questions how paternal roles have been viewed through 20th-century industrial societies, which shaped narrow perceptions of men’s capabilities.”
Therefore, fathers appear to be biologically primed to provide direct care for their children. Indeed, in many other animals, fathers’ hormones change in similar ways when dads cooperate with moms to raise young. As anthropologists, we know that cultural contexts have large effects on shaping human parents’ roles in families. So it might be most accurate to say that men are biologically evolved to be culturally primed as caregivers.
Photo: César Abner Martínez Aguilar. Unsplash.
These insights suggest that caring fatherhood is not an aberration of changing current social conditions. Rather, it is rooted in our evolutionary past and can be supported by changes in testosterone, other hormones, and the brain, which help men shift from one specialized role to another and back again. A biological and cultural requirement for these shifts toward caring is men’s proximity and availability to their children. In some societies that practice foraging, men are with their children for much of the day, and those fathers are more involved in hands-on child care than fathers in virtually any other human societies. We are still learning about the biology of fatherhood in these societies, but these caring behaviors and fathers’ availability to their children often correspond with lower testosterone in men in the Philippines, the United States, European countries, Israel, and other settings.
Is caring fatherhood linked to being community minded?
In our most recent research, we explored whether testosterone levels are linked to fathers’ social roles not only in the family but also in the broader community. In the Republic of Congo, we studied fathers in BaYaka families, which rely on forest resources for a major part of their income. They are generally hands-on dads, holding their babies, taking their older children with them to work in the forest, and sleeping with them as a family. BaYaka communities are also egalitarian and very cooperative.
As part of their roles as fathers, BaYaka men are valued for generously sharing resources across the group, so caring fatherhood in this context is not limited to the nuclear family but extends to the broader community. In our study, we tested for links between fathers’ testosterone and rankings from their fellow dads on these locally valued roles. We found that those men considered to be better community sharers had lower testosterone than their peers. Also, BaYaka fathers who were seen as being better providers had lower testosterone than fathers who were ranked as less effective in acquiring resources. So in many contexts around the world, lower testosterone in fathers is linked to expressions of parenting that fathers, their partners and co-parents, and their broader community value as critical contributions for children.
Caring fatherhood is no longer peripheral
These findings challenge how we might think about contemporary fatherhood and its potential. They highlight direct caring for children as an important feature of men’s lives from early in human evolution. This perspective questions more historically and culturally limited ways in which paternal roles have been regarded, viewed through the particularities of 20th-century industrial societies, which shaped quite narrow perceptions of men’s capabilities. Our growing understanding of the biology of fatherhood underscores the flexibility of fathers to adapt to meet the many different challenges that face parents, whether it is providing direct care to children or food and resources for them.
The digital economy – and more immediately, the COVID-19 pandemic – are bringing fathers’ work back into the home. This means that many men are spending more time in closer proximity with their children. Will this greater availability of dads to children be correlated with a surge in caring fatherhood and further narrowing of the gender care gap? Our research with BaYaka fathers also raises questions of whether more caring fatherhood can be harnessed to encourage greater community engagement by men in an age when many serious challenges demand communitywide action.
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