Monday, 8 December 2008

Why do some dads get more involved than others? Evidence from a large British cohort

Why do some dads get more involved than others? Evidence from a large British cohort

Daniel Nettle

At sciencedirect or New Scientist reports. (I found this article through new scientist but the below is based on what I found from reading the full text via sciencedirect.

Let's start with the data-set. Parental involvement is related by the mother, so relies on her accurate reporting. It is rated on a three point scale, from no involvement to an involvement equal to the mother, with an option to say that the question is non-applicable. The question is taken at one time point, when the offspring in question are 11. They noted that 1 often correlated to a non-resident father and 3 to a father who lived with the family. By referencing this scale against other variables they found.
1. Fathers rated as highly invested in their children were more likely to have skilled jobs whereas fathers rated at less likely to be involved were more likely to have an unskilled job.
2. Men were more likely to be reported as investing more time in sons then daughters.
3. Children with heavily involved fathers have a higher intelligence score in all social classes.
4. Children with fathers in skilled employment who spent a lot of time with them had a greater improvement in 'intelligence' then any other group.
5. Those offspring with high parental investment were more likely to be upwardly mobile through life, the class effect disappeared in this measure.

This is then discussed as evolutionary adaptive.

I have two big issues with this.

The first issue is how I see studies like this being used. This study states that paternal involvement improves outcomes, but it misses a hell of a lot of other variable. It does not take into account any non-traditional family structure. It just presumes a woman's involvement but doesn't measure it. Surely the children in more 'highly invested' groups are getting twice the parental input of the other children, so this could be causing the effect. There's also nothing to show it has to be a father, that it isn't just having significant time invested by two parents as opposed to one. We all know which crowd argues that children need a parent of each gender, don't we?

The second issue I have is the complete failure to consider other variables. There is some suggestion that potential IQ has a genetic component, couldn't this have a role? More intelligent parents having more intelligent children. How does that mother's socioeconomic status play in?

They also attempt to explain why higher socioeconomic class fathers put in more childcare time in evolutionary terms. How about this, these men have more money to spend on their children (buying them books and taking them out, for example), they probably have higher job satisfaction and more control over their own working conditions, so instead of stumbling in at 6, exhausted from hauling crates all day they come in buzzing from settling that deal in Japan and have much more energy to invest in their children. Then, of course, there's the possibility for biased recording. Anyone check if these fathers actually spent more time of if it was just perceived that they spent more time. The authors compare the results to older statistics that show this measure seems to correlate with earlier measures like the amount of time spent reading (again, reported by mother) or amount of time spent on outings (guess who reported it?). It doesn't seem to account for that fact that men of lower socioeconomic class might not read to their kids, but might watch TV with them. They might not take their kids to the zoo but they might take them round to relatives or to friends, particularly children of the same gender.

Then there's the social pressure to have a child who's successful. This pressure doesn't really exist in working class families, in my experience. A child who gets a job on the shop floor at Tesco is seen as a success in the same way one with a degree is whereas in higher status families there is the expectation that the child will enter the same socioeconomic class, so will have a degree. They're also more likely to go to a school which prepares them for university and more likely to have peers who aspire to high things. That HAS to have an effect.

Then there's the casual writing off of the female children, of course he wouldn't invest so much time in a girl. Evolutionarily speaking, males are more likely to give you lots of children. They do, to be fair, give a passing nod to the fact that society values male children more, but does put a lot more emphasis on an evolutionary explanation.

All in all, I remain unconvinced that a person with a penis is needed or even preferential in raising a child. I'll accept that this implies that bi-parental care may have an effect, particularly in large families, but I certainly don't think we can draw any evolutionary conclusions from this and I'd prefer to hold off on drawing any conclusions at all until I see something that accounts for the contribution of the female parent.

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