On March 16, 1777, John Adams took a break from his work on the Articles of Confederation to pen a brief missive to his youngest son, 5-year old Thomas. "I believe I must make a physician of you," wrote the Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress. "There seems to be a propriety in your studying physic, because your great-grandfather, after whom you was named, was of that profession."
While our second president's understanding of his paternal responsibilities may seem strange to us today, until the 1970s — when the sitcom anti-hero Archie Bunker helped debunk the long-reigning paradigm — most Americans viewed the father primarily as an authoritarian provider. The mother, in contrast, was supposed to tend to the emotional needs of children all by her lonesome.
In "Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked," Paul Raeburn attempts to redefine fatherhood for the 21st century. A veteran science journalist, he also wrote "Acquainted With the Night: A Father's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children" (2004), a memoir covering the last few years of his tumultuous first marriage, during which two of his three children became revolving-door psychiatric inpatients.
This harrowing experience left him feeling "like a failure as a father," as in his frank self-assessment, his own impatience and irritability often exacerbated his children's bouts with mental illness. A decade in the making, this sequel of sorts was begun just as Raeburn found a new wife, with whom he has since fathered two boys. Eager to disprove Samuel Johnson's dictum that second marriages reflect the "triumph of hope over experience," Raeburn has a compelling reason to devour the wisdom of the experts. Although this time around he focuses much more on science than on self, Raeburn remains a participatory journalist, who, like the late George Plimpton, is totally immersed in his subject matter.
Over the last century, the literature on parenting has been largely mother-obsessed. The towering figure in the field, British psychiatrist John Bowlby, who has spawned two generations of disciples, formulated his celebrated attachment theory by studying homeless children displaced by World War II. "Maternal Care and Mental Health," his first major book, concluded that a warm bond with the mother was necessary for optimal cognitive and emotional development; of fathers, this neo-Freudian never would say much.
The resulting lacuna has yet to be adequately filled in. As recently as a decade ago, about half of the developmental studies in leading child and adolescent psychology journals excluded fathers, and only 11% focused on them exclusively. While fathers as a group are less involved than ever — in 2010, 27% of children lived apart from their fathers, as opposed to just 10% half a century earlier — they still are from far irrelevant.
Even their absence, as Raeburn stresses, can have an effect. Lamenting that today's most prevalent camps see fathers as either a vestigial social structure or as a panacea, Raeburn seeks a middle ground, based not on emotion but on scientific evidence.
His lively tour through the latest research in biology, ethology, psychology, sociology and neuroscience is intriguing. Who knew that a supportive father who engages in rough-and-tumble play with his children may well boost both their intellectual development as well as their language ability? Likewise, policy-makers might be interested to learn that the absence of a father can lead to both accelerated puberty and increased sexual risk-taking in daughters. Another provocative study, which Raeburn highlights in his chapter on the "male biological clock," concludes that children born to fathers 40 and older face an increased risk of developing both autism and schizophrenia.
Unfortunately, these findings, like most of the others sprinkled throughout the book, are based on associations rather than causes. In contrast, the female biological clock is incontrovertible, connected to the specific genetic abnormality behind Down syndrome.
All told, the science of fatherhood is not quite ready for prime time. More research is needed before a grand synthesizer — some 21st century version of Dr. Spock — can formulate its key principles.
From the scattered personal references that Raeburn coughs up, it is clear that he has enjoyed a much more satisfying run with his two youngest children. But the reason appears to stem less from any insight gained from evolutionary biology than from his own psychological evolution; he has carefully examined his past behavior and made a string of changes. Instead of engaging in a long commute and skipping family dinners, he does all his writing at home; he now considers his consistent presence a sine qua non. Additionally, he has learned to avoid misdirecting his anger toward his children.
One can't help wishing that Raeburn had devoted more space to the particulars of his quotidian life. As America continues to search for a new paradigm for fatherhood, we are all subjects in a massive social science experiment. And the success stories of individual families can be as valuable a source of information as well-crunched data.
Kendall's latest book is "America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation."
Do Fathers Matter?
What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 288 pp., $26