“That is not fair!” Any parent or teacher knows how early in children’s lives this notion drives human behavior, motivation, and belonging. When children feel they are treated fairly, they develop a sense of safety and predictability, and find reason to comply with rules and legitimize authorities. Parents and teachers are justice gatekeepers in children’s lives. How they handle conflict and discipline shapes children’s expectations of justice in other settings. Most children and adolescents do not have direct contact with legal authorities, such as police or judges. However, one of the ways they build their perspectives is based on the justice they have grown to expect from closer authorities. Data from a diverse group of 680 Brazilian adolescents revealed that parents’ justice at home and their evaluations of school fairness predicted how adolescents perceived their personal access to justice and the justice of the world at large. Furthermore, adolescents’ world views of justice predicted how much they legitimized the law and avoided delinquent behaviors the following year. It is easy to think about justice as simply getting what you deserve, but that bypasses one of the more powerful cognitions of justice – the process of justice. Procedural justice considers the respect, neutrality, voice, and fairness of the authority’s actions. A child may not agree that she should be disciplined for her dishonesty, but if the parent is respectful, explains the rules, and listens to the child, she is more likely to continue respecting her parents’ authority, despite her frustration. The point is not to be lenient, but to emerge on the other side with your child’s respect so that, even when consequences are firm, the child experiences the safety and predictability of justice. “How parents and teachers handle conflict and discipline shapes children’s expectations of justice in other settings.” It is vital that children experience justice and come to expect it. Harsh punishments or rules without explanation do not feel fair, and chip away at the legitimacy youth attribute to authorities at large – and that illegitimacy makes them vulnerable to future delinquency. When you find out your child has done something wrong, do you: Listen to their side of the story? Talk to them politely? Explain why you are disciplining them? Youth should be given the chance to articulate their perspective and practice civil dialogue in common daily scenarios. When children are consistently given a chance to explain their perspective and be respected by the authorities they know, they will anticipate and even demand to be given the same rights in society. The world is not a fair place, and failing to expose injustice underprepares children at best, and leads them to blame the victims or be the victims at worst. The goal is not to have children believe the world is fair, but is to make their lives fair so they can be equipped with the courage to engage in positive civic behaviors and avoid fatalistic mindsets. “We want to raise children to speak up and expect to be heard and understood.” We want to raise children who are equipped for the challenges of the world. Doing so begins by providing a safe haven at home and at school, where they can learn to connect their actions to outcomes and to be outraged by, not cynical of, injustice. We want them to have good reasons to legitimize their authorities. We want to raise children to speak up and expect to be heard and understood. We must model for them the kind of justice we want them to demand from society. Header photo: MTSOfan. Creative Commons. More
Dr. Graeme Russell died on 2nd April 2021 after a long battle with cancer. At the time of his death, he was a Flexibility and Diversity Consultant in Sydney, Australia, Research Collaborator and Knowledge Program Facilitator for the Diversity Council of Australia, and a retired Associate Professor of Organizational Psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Graeme cared deeply about the issues of gender equality, diversity and family well-being in Australia, devoting his professional life to research and practical work to promote these goals. He collaborated with scholars and practitioners throughout the world and will be sorely missed.
Graeme pioneered research on fathering, starting in the late 1970s, and his 1982 book, The changing role of fathers, remains the point of reference for research on primary caretaking fathers because it sought to place the fathers’ behavior in the context of intrafamilial and broader societal beliefs, practices, and constraints. Graeme continued to publish articles and book chapters on primary caregiving fathers, father-child relationships in childhood and adolescence, shared parenting, grandfathering, Australian fatherhood, and family policy over the succeeding decades. Because of his scholarship, researchers now recognize that men can be active parents in the move toward greater gender equality and that social attitudes and institutional policies play an essential role in constraining and facilitating parental behavior. Graeme was actively involved in organizing and disseminating outcomes from the first International Fatherhood Summit at Oxford in 2003 and was a key figure in helping the Australian government design policies to promote gender equality and work-family integration, for example, by engaging in several projects for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, established in 2012. In 2017, he co-authored a book entitled Men make a difference – engaging men on gender equality.
For nearly four decades, Graeme was avidly involved in supporting working fathers, consulting with companies interested in promoting gender equality and work-family integration in many countries, including Australia, China, Japan and Korea. He established workshops for fathers in the workplace to help them integrate work and family demands and published several articles on the impact of workplace practices on father involvement. His keen interest in workplace flexibility and its promise for gender equality led him to design team-based approaches for work redesign, making it possible for companies to implement flexible work arrangements, assuring benefits for individuals and companies. At the time of his death, he was focused on ensuring that human resource professionals were aware of these important possibilities.
Graeme’s success as a consultant and colleague was facilitated by his genuine warmth, friendliness, and accessibility, which allowed him to get along with everyone regardless of their personal characteristics or ideology. His personal strengths were especially evident in his skillful engagement with diverse groups, including senior managers, employees, unions, politicians, academics and social activists. While Graeme’s professional and personal lives were mutually enriching, his first priority in life was always his family, comprising his wife Susan, his children (Kirsten, Emily, and Benjamin) and his eight grandchildren. He especially adored his grandchildren and played an important role in their daily lives, spending as much time as possible with them. He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather.
Graeme’s legacy as a pioneer of gender equality in Australia will be long-lasting and his influence on students, collaborators, scholars, human resource practitioners, and policy makers has been profound.
Linda Haas, Indiana University, Indianapolis, USAPhilip Hwang, University of Gothenburg, SwedenMichael E. Lamb, University of Cambridge, UK 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).
Header photo: Extra Medium. Creative Commons. More
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.
Header photo: Jonnelle Yankovich. Creative Commons. More
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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New research from Romania has demonstrated a clear correlation between adverse childhood experiences in fathers’ lives and their children’s development, including sleep disruption, inattention, anger, and anxiety. Fathers’ symptoms of depression partially accounted for the correlation between their early experiences and their children’s inattention and anger. Fathers’ negative parenting practices partially accounted for the link with children’s inattention.
Adverse childhood experiences include growing up in poverty; absence or death of a parent; violence; caregivers’ drug or alcohol addiction; physical or emotional neglect; peer victimization; or physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.
Based on the study, the researchers concluded that fathers should be involved in programs that support children with problems such as anxiety, anger, inattention, and sleep disturbance. Other studies have shown that parents with a reported history of prior maltreatment have the capacity for improving their parenting practices. Fathers should also receive direct support to address depression and negative parenting practices.
The study featured 118 fathers of 6- to 17-year-olds. All fathers were in stable, committed relationships with the mother of their children. Fathers completed a series of psychological questionnaires and evaluations of their own children. They were asked about their own childhood experiences, their assessment of their children’s mental health (inattention, sleep disturbance, depression, anger, anxiety), their own parenting practices, and their relationship with their children’s mother.
The correlations in this research do not imply causation, but they do correspond with earlier research, particularly on mothers. Mothers’ depression and negative parenting has been shown to explain the link between their own adverse childhood experiences and their children’s development – including communication, problem solving, motor skills at age 2, health, and hyperactivity. Many studies have confirmed that individuals who were maltreated in childhood are at risk of repeating these negative behaviors toward their own children.
Fathers’ symptoms of depression have also been linked to their children’s anxiety, depression, substance addiction (for up to 20 years), psychiatric disorders, lower academic performance, hyperactivity, social problems, and emotional difficulties. The global socioeconomic changes that have been occurring for the last 40 years suggest that the traditional mother-focused models of developmental influence are old fashioned. The presence and involvement of fathers in their children’s lives is strongly associated with their offspring’s social well-being, academic achievement, and behavioral adjustment. Moreover, longitudinal studies have confirmed that, in child development, fathers matter in ways similar to mothers. More
In her creative homemade short film, The Lucky Ones, Rachel Morrison reflects on her favorite memories as a 5 year old of ice cream for breakfast and bevies of balloons. Then she segues into scenes of her 5-year-old son with cape and swords running through dunes at a nearby beach. She describes how much he, even at the young age of 5, acutely feels the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and misses his friends and teachers. This quite blissful introduction abruptly shifts as Morrison reflects on how those playful memories of her 5-year-old self were actually intimate moments with her mother in the hospital battling cancer. The pangs of isolation undercutting these reflections pivot back to her son: What will he remember of this unusual pandemic? His play on the beach with swords and capes interwoven with so much time spent with a sibling and parents, or something else?
This poignant short film captures so much about play and its evolutionary buffer. Play cements pleasant memories. Play is primal. Play is not only an expressive outlet for curating and preserving our own well-being, but also connects us with others. Play positions us for resilience and survival.
“As a society, we undervalue play.”
If this is true, why aren’t we hearing more about the value of play for children during this pandemic? Moreover, how might play be an avenue for learning or serving as a buffer against even more anticipated learning loss as the pandemic continues?
One reason is that as a society, we undervalue play. Play’s long-term benefits for economic health and general well-being are neither easy to quantify nor quantified the way, for example, we quantify metrics on the benefits of formal and structured early education (as James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has done). Some early childhood experts are even complicit: Good intentions to elevate information and education about the types of parent interactions and environments that support early childhood development have unintentionally contributed to imposing more stress on structure and deliberateness at the cost of spontaneity.
Another reason is that we view play as a luxury, something that is frivolous and for the rich or lazy. We’ve been wired to see play as an “extra” rather than as a core ingredient. Unlike breakfast, a good night’s sleep, and tooth brushing, play is not considered a building block to healthy living.
“Play, and the habit of spontaneous play, can help support parents and children through this pandemic.”
Two years before the pandemic, in 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics for the first time published a public statement on the benefits of childhood play. They did this in part due to concerns about recommendations that tilted toward overstructured, overly formalized, and overly controlled environments for children. Managing the tension of spontaneous, unstructured play with the directive that parents hear about routine, predictability, and daily practice of positive interactions with children has and can be confusing (as I’ve previously written). Some progress has been made in addressing this tension (e.g., through initiatives such as Playful Learning Landscapes, an effort reinforce learning more naturally through public spaces and parks as locations for unfettered play).
Photo: Paige Cody. Unsplash.
COVID-19 has had and will continue to have devastating impacts on children of all ages. Parents’ loss of jobs and income, lockdowns in homes with adults who are sometimes abusive and neglectful, separation from school and early care and education, distance from peers, and disruption of monitoring by health and other professionals will have long-term negative consequences. We have many reasons to be worried about the next generation and the likely increases in socioeconomic and racial disparities. Could play be the silver lining in this gloomy scenario?
Indeed, evolution might have positioned children well: No pandemic can fully kidnap their innate imagination and impulse to play (though it can drain their capacity to embrace and enjoy it). For younger children, whether turning basements into beaches or backyards into butterfly gardens, or conjuring a new influx of imaginary friends, playful activities are stepping stones to learning in all the ways educators, economists, and developmentalists tout as predictors of long term well-being. The social skills developed with imaginary friends, and the math skills incorporated into cooking and designing beaches are seedlings of the cognitive and emotional foundations children need to thrive. Considerable research shows a variety of ways that, for example, rough-and-tumble play improves children’s social cognition, social competence, and spatial ability, and imaginative or pretend play can improve children’s creativity and psychological and moral development. In fact, childhoods that are deprived of play might be harmful to children.
“The role of intuitive play, and its place in daily habits, is more important now than ever.”
For older children, increased time in the digital world can lead to reduced physical activity and isolation. The counterbalance can be found in the ways the digital world has sparked creativity—songs, videos, new ways of communicating across large groups of peers.
The role of intuitive play, and its place in daily habits, is more important now than ever. Conventional modes of learning have been taken away from many families, with emotional and economic stress escalating as new struggles of getting food on the table, and balancing children’s schooling and work have increased. Conventional places to play may be constrained and unsafe, whether at home, at school, or in publicly available spaces.
The underlying message of the AAP in 2018 is one worth revisiting now: Play, and the habit of spontaneous play, can help support parents and children through this pandemic. This might be the moment to validate that intuitive play counts as play and play counts as learning. The good news is that this message does not have to emerge from a new committee of scientists or public health experts to inform strict protocols to succeed.
Header photo: Segun Osunyomi. Unsplash. More
Near-scientific consensus that physical punishment is damaging to children has led to interest in how to educate parents about its potential harms. Efforts to reduce parents’ use of physical punishment, often called spanking, with young children through on-line education are likely to succeed only if they directly address parents’ beliefs.
This is what we learned from an experiment we undertook to examine how parents who approve of physical punishment remain committed to spanking even after being shown scientific evidence linking the practice to many negative outcomes for children, including aggression and mental health issues. The study, of parents of 2- to 8-year-olds from 41 U.S. states, was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Discomfort makes parents mistrust science
In our study, parents were given written scientific evidence about spanking in the form of an on-line news article, which included quotes from an expert on physical punishment. They also received written opinions from lay commentators who advocated for physical punishment. Parents who approved of physical punishment rated experts as less trustworthy than lay commentators, thereby avoiding the psychological challenge and discomfort – often called cognitive dissonance — that occurs when beliefs contradict scientific evidence. They may do this by questioning the trustworthiness of the science and preferring alternative perspectives that fit their views.
“Parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.”
However, in our study, parents who approved of physical punishment were not anti-science in principle. Their distrust of science was specific to this topic. For example, parents had no trouble valuing messages from experts on a neutral topic — the importance of car seats for children — even when they had discounted the expert on physical punishment. These findings suggest that parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.
Photo: Average Joe. Creative Commons.
Findings suggest more workable approaches
The Internet has become a leading source of information for parents around the world. Our study helps us understand why efforts to significantly reduce spanking by disseminating information on-line about the dangers of physically punishing children may prove difficult without directly addressing common misperceptions about physical punishment. First, the on-line world makes it very easy for users to avoid information that contradicts what they already believe. Second, it gives users competing lay and pseudo-scientific commentary that can confirm existing views in what are often referred to as echo chambers.
The good news is that parents who approve of physical punishment don’t distrust science per se — they are generally open to scientific findings, as the comparison involving child car seats showed. However, it is easy for parents to discount scientific findings when they can easily find others on-line who validate their support for practices such as physical punishment.
Paediatricians can be influential
Given the challenges of on-line parent education, a more productive way to educate parents about the harms of physical punishment may be to do so through experts they already trust, such as their children’s pediatricians. Pediatricians are widely trusted by parents. In the United States and Canada, they are encouraged to offer anticipatory guidance – a type of proactive counselling on childrearing topics such as children wearing bicycle helmets and ensuring that guns are stored safely — even if parents don’t raise the issue. The risks of physical punishment should be a subject that is frequently discussed with parents, along with suggestions for disciplinary methods to use instead of physical punishment. Pediatricians say the best time to discuss this is when children are infants so parents can reflect on the options available long before their children misbehave. However, pediatricians are not always trained for the task and may need advice on how best to raise these issues and participate in these discussions.
Beliefs underpin parental resistance to science
At some level, most parents who physically punish their young children believe in the practice. Some use this kind of punishment because their parents used it on them and they believe it worked. Some see it is as a last resort, when parents feel they have no other option. They may feel they need spanking in their toolbox to drive their message home on occasion. Simply telling parents not to hit their children without providing a realistic and credible toolbox of alternatives is unlikely to win over converts. Experts may seem to be taking away parents’ last resort without offering them something they know will work in what can be a stressful situation. Also, if experts offer parents alternatives that seem too difficult or time consuming, parents may display solution aversion: When a solution is regarded as unworkable or too scary, people recoil from it and stick with what they know.
Tempting though it may be to simply rely on making scientific evidence about physical punishment widely available, to have a wider impact, we need more individualized approaches that address parents’ beliefs. Resistant parents are not intrinsically anti-science. But on the issue of spanking, they need workable options other than physical punishment. When the going gets tough, they need something they can really believe in.
Header photo: Guian Bolisay. Creative Commons. More