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The Daddy Factor

From World War II through the 1960s, the few psychologists and other “experts” who thought about fathers believed that their main contribution was to be role models for gender ­appropriate behavior by their sons. They were supposed to teach their sons what it meant to be a man, as they usually put it. A few researchers thought it might be nice to measure that effect to see whether there was truly a correlation between masculinity in fathers and masculinity in their sons. (Masculinity refers to what we traditionally think of as male characteristics: toughness, power, status, sturdiness in a crisis, a willingness to take risks, and to ignore what others think.) The link should have been easy to find, but it wasn’t. There was no consistent connection between a father’s masculinity and his son’s. This posed a challenge to the conventional wisdom. If fathers weren’t helping to make boys into men, then what role did they have?

The problem was that nobody had asked why boys might want to be like their fathers. Presumably they would want to emulate their fathers only if they liked and respected them and had warm relationships with them. When researchers decided to look for that, in the 1960s, they discovered that the relationship between father and son was crucially important. When a father had a warm relationship with his son, that son would grow up to be more like his father than sons who were not close to their fathers. A father’s own masculinity was irrelevant; his warmth and closeness with his son was the key factor.

This was one of the first indications that fathers have a particularly strong influence on children’s social development. Interactions between fathers and their sons and daughters that are playful, affectionate, and engaging predict later popularity in school and among peers, perhaps by teaching children to read emotional expressions on their fathers’ faces, and later on those of their peer group. Harsh discipline by fathers, on the other hand, has been linked to later behavior problems in their kids.

These early discoveries prompted careful examination of fathers and their influence on their toddlers and school-­ age children. And one of the areas in which researchers looked for the influence of fathers was in the development of language. I’ve always thought that watching children learn to talk is one of the highlights of parenting. It’s a hallmark of their lives during their first few years. They learn to make their wishes known — often emphatically known. What begins in infancy with gestures and sounds develops into competence with language by around age 3. Fathers are proving to be an important part of this process, as Lynne Vernon-­Feagans of the University of North Carolina and her colleague Nadya Pancsofar at the College of New Jersey are finding out.

They have done some of the most interesting work looking at children’s language development in both middle­-class and poor, rural families. They’ve found, to their surprise, that not only are fathers important for children’s language development, but that fathers matter more than mothers. For example, when fathers used more words with their children during play, children had more advanced language skills a year later. In particular, they found that fathers’ use of vocabulary when reading picture books to their children at 6 months of age were significantly related to the children’s expressiveness at 15 months and use of advanced language at age 3. This held true no matter what the mother’s educational level was or how she spoke to the children.

When I spoke with Vernon-Feagans about her findings, she said she was surprised by the difference between mothers and fathers. She had thought they would be equally involved in encouraging their children’s language development. Why would fathers be more important in this regard than mothers? The hypothesis is that it’s because mothers are more attuned to their children, typically spending more time with them than fathers do. That makes mothers more likely to choose words the kids are familiar with. Fathers aren’t as attuned to their kids, so they use a broader vocabulary, and their children learn new words and concepts as a result.

Vernon-Feagans thought there might be another factor at play as well. Because fathers usually spend less time with their children, they are more of a novelty. That makes them more interesting playmates. “I do think our children see it as very special when they do book reading with their fathers,” she said. “They may listen more and acquire language in a special way.” The effect of fathers on children’s language continues until they enter school.

A father playing with his son.
Brave new world: Fathers are more likely than mothers to encourage children to take risks &mdashj; and those experiences help children learn to be brave in difficult situations.
Illustration by Hadley Hooper

But fathers contribute to their children’s mental development more broadly than just with respect to language. They also influence their children’s intellectual growth, adjustment to school, and behavior, as Catherine Tamis­ LeMonda of New York University and her colleagues discovered. They were interested in the influence of fathers on language in families involved in Head Start, a pre-school program for low­-income children. The researchers watched fathers’ interactions with their children — and, separately, mothers’ interactions with their children — during a period of free play when the children were 2 years old, and again when they were 3. They found that these were mostly good parents. They challenged the assumption by some researchers “that low-income parents primarily engage in authoritarian exchanges with their young children and that fathers are harsh disciplinarians.” And the sensitivity of the parents, their positive regard for their children, and the intellectual stimulation they offered predicted that the children would do well on tests of development and vocabulary later on.

Supportive parenting on the part of fathers was linked to a boost in children’s intellectual development and their language abilities. Fathers’ good behavior also improved the behavior of mothers with their children — an interesting indirect effect of good fathering. But the importance of father’s income varies from one study to the next. Daniel Nettle of Newcastle University found that wealthier fathers produced a greater rise in their children’s IQs than did similarly active low­-income fathers. Nettle doesn’t say why this income disparity exists. It might sound discouraging, but it suggests that improving men’s educational or financial status would confer benefits not only on them but on their children as well.

But that’s not to say that fathers in poorer families have no influence; they do. In 2011, Erin Pougnet, Alex E. Schwartzman, and their colleagues at Concordia University in Montreal set out to assess fathers’ influence over children’s intellectual development and behavioral problems by looking at low- to middle-income families in which the fathers lived apart from their children, which is the case in about 22 percent of Quebec families. These families have reduced incomes, and the children are less likely to graduate from high school. The researchers looked at the data on the children when they were 3 to 5 years old, and again when they were 9 to 13 years old. They found that the presence of fathers in the home was associated with fewer of what are called “internalizing” problems — depression, fear, and self-­doubt — in their daughters … but not in their sons. It was unclear why that was the case. And the children of fathers who exhibited more positive kinds of control, such as reasoning, scored higher on a measure of nonverbal intelligence called performance IQ. How fathers exert these effects is still being teased out. But clearly one way they do it is, again, through play. Mothers, who generally spend more time with their children, are seen by their kids as crucial sources of well-being and security. Children are more likely to think of their fathers as playmates. So it’s not too surprising that infants respond more positively to being picked up by their fathers, because they suspect that means it’s playtime.

When fathers used more words with their children during play, children had more advanced language skills a year later.

“Fathers often use objects in an incongruous way,” writes Daniel Paquette of the University of Montreal. During rough-and-tumble play like this, fathers tend to use playful teasing to “destabilize children both emotionally and cognitively,” which children like — despite the seemingly ominous implications of the word “destabilizing.” It might not sound like a good idea, but this destabilization could have a critical function. It could be helping our children confront one of their principal challenges: the need to learn how to deal with unexpected events. “Children’s need to be stimulated, pushed, and encouraged to take risks is as great as their need for stability and security,” says Paquette.

Fathers’ unpredictability helps children learn to be brave in difficult situations or when meeting new people. In one study of 1-year-olds taken to swimming class, researchers observed that fathers were more likely to stand behind their children, so that the children faced the water, while mothers tended to stand in front of the children, the better to make eye contact. From this and other studies, he concluded that fathers may be especially important in supporting their children as they move from the family to the world outside the door. And one of the first and most important unfamiliar environments that children encounter is school. Children who make the transition from home to school more easily, who are free of behavior problems and relate well to their peers and teachers, are more likely to do well in kindergarten and elementary school.

One of the most convincing summaries of fathers’ contribution to children’s development comes from Sweden. Researchers at Uppsala University wanted to know if there was evidence to support arguments for more parental leave for fathers and for other measures that would increase the involvement of fathers in child-rearing. They collected 24 of what they thought were the best studies of father involvement and children’s outcomes. The studies were longitudinal, meaning they followed fathers and their families over at least a year. Such studies are generally more persuasive than those that simply ask families about current or past practices in the home. And when the data from a number of studies is combined and analyzed together in what’s called a meta-analysis, it can sometimes produce clearer results than can any single study alone.

The researchers found a wide variety of beneficial social and psychological effects stemming from fathers’ direct engagement with their children. Children whose fathers played with them, read to them, took them on outings, and helped care for them had fewer behavioral problems in the early school years, and less likelihood of delinquency or criminal behavior as adolescents.

Much of the evidence linking fathers to their children’s social competence comes back to the way they play with their children. You might notice a recurring theme here. Play changes as children grow older; tickling and chasing toddlers is gradually replaced by teaching kids to ride a bicycle, playing catch, riding roller coasters, and other more sophisticated kinds of play. (In my case, when my kids were teenagers and ready for Batman: The Ride at Six Flags, I was too terrified to join them. I still feel bad about that.) Play changes, but it remains a central part of the interactions between children and their fathers throughout childhood.

Ross D. Parke, of the University of California, Riverside, whose research has focused largely on the social development of children, thinks the way a father plays is the key to healthy development in kids. He says that when fathers exert too much control over the play, instead of responding to their children’s cues, their sons can have more difficulty with their peers. Daughters who were the most popular likewise enjoyed playing with their fathers and had the most “nondirective” fathers. The children of these fathers also tended to have easier transitions into elementary school.

Children whose fathers took turns being the one to suggest activities and showed an interest in the child’s suggestions grew up to be less aggressive, more competent, and better liked. These were fathers who played actively with their children, but were not authoritarian; father and child engaged in give-and-take.

The importance of play might be connected to the demands it places on both fathers and children to recognize one another’s emotional signals during fast-paced, intense activity — which is what children also need to do with their peers. Fathers should spend as much time as they can with their toddlers and school-age children. And they shouldn’t feel compelled to prop flash cards in front of them or read sixth-grade books to third-graders.
They should spend more time playing.

Excerpted from Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, published in June by Scientific American, an imprint of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux LLC. © 2014 by Paul Raeburn. All rights reserved.

Jewish Pawns

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Concern for the fate of Jewish children in Hitler’s Europe, like this boy who was arrested in a Warsaw ghetto in 1941, compelled Congress to consider allowing 20,000 young refugees into the country.

The story has a familiar ring to it. Thousands of refugee children seeking asylum in the United States sparks a heated debate over immigration and human rights.

Today the children are illegal entrants from impoverished regions of Central America. In 1939, they were Jewish children whose parents had been shipped off to Hitler’s concentration camps.

That year, U.S. legislators introduced a bill into Congress to allow 20,000 of these children to enter America. The bill’s sponsors believed that, unless these children were allowed to emigrate, they would suffer the same fate as their parents.

The bill was defeated when Congress voted in accord with American opinion; at the time 60 percent of voters didn’t want to raise immigration quotas for Jews fleeing the Nazis.

We might wonder how Americans could turn their backs on children facing almost certain death. But Americans weren’t heartless in those days, they were afraid. Many feared the children’s parents would eventually petition to join their children and would arrive in the U.S. to take jobs away from Americans. After all, unemployment in 1939 was still lingering near 17 percent.

Some feared that allowing these young refugees into the U.S. would damage its status as a neutral nation, particularly in the eyes of Germany. Others feared the children would introduce non-traditional culture into American society.

Some were hoping to keep all traces of Europe’s troubles out of America.

And many, alas, just disliked Jews. If anti-Semitism hasn’t declined in America in the past 75 years, it has certainly become less outspoken. But in 1939, many anti-Semites weren’t shy about expressing their dislike of Jews.

Many Americans, though, were simply indifferent, reluctant to intervene in Germany’s treatment of its Jewish population. They regarded Hitler’s brutal treatment of Jews with cold detachment as Demaree Bess did in the Post on March 18, 1939.

“There are two manners of approach to this important question. One is emotional, coming from the heart. The other is intellectual, coming from the head. In America, we have thus far stuck largely the emotional approach. Our hearts have been profoundly moved and our sense of decency outraged by the barbarous persecution of thousands of helpless men, women, and children. Many of us have become so indignant that we are in a mood to do something — anything — to retaliate against bullies and brutes.” (Read the entire article “Jewish Pawns in Power Politics” from the Post.)

Bess was worried that “anything” could mean going to war with Germany. So he encouraged readers to think about anti-Semitism as something other than the systematic abuse of a religious minority. It was also, he said, a political tool. In Germany, it had helped the Nazis distinguish themselves from other socialist groups and gather a following among bigots and bullies. Anti-Semitism had also enabled the Nazi Party to enrich itself from the penalties they inflicted on Jews as well as the theft of imprisoned or executed Jews.

In a surprising move, Bess, reported Italy had also adopted racial laws against Jews, despite the fact that Mussolini long maintained that anti-Semitism was senseless. Japan, which had virtually no Jews to hate, had also made anti-Semitism part of its national policy.

Italy and Japan only adopted the Nazi policy to attract anti-Semitic allies in other countries. In the Middle East, for instance, Italy was hoping to stir up opposition against Britain and its colonies, but it had agreed not to engage in any anti-British propaganda. With an anti-Jewish campaign, it could still rally support among Arabs. Italy’s new anti-Jewish laws, Bess wrote, “served as the most effective kind of propaganda among all those countries and groups which dislike the British because they are pictured as defenders of the Jews.”

Japan’s big worry in 1939 was the Soviet Union. Russian troops continued to threaten Japanese forces in Manchuria. At the time, the communist government in Russia was widely considered to be friendly to Jews.

Japan hoped to reduce Russian troop concentration in Manchuria by forcing the Soviet Union to shift armies west against opponents in Europe. “Japanese agents,” Bess reported, “working among anti-Semitic groups in Eastern Europe [that engaged in] various anti-Soviet movements, finally realized, like Mussolini, that they could make better progress if their government were definitely committed to a policy of Jew-baiting.”

While this is informative, it hardly seems to address American outrage over Nazi atrocities. And it raises the question of whether it is appropriate to consider some issues “intellectually.” A truly detached inquiry would involve accepting nothing and questioning everything, so that you might raise the question, as Bess did, “Are the Jews themselves responsible for arousing the hostility of other groups? Are they guilty of all those sins with which they are charged by anti-Semitic groups in all parts of the world?”

Precisely the sort of questions Hitler would want you to ask.

Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago:

Why Your Great Grandparents Were A Bunch of Spoiled Kids

Child-rearing advice: The supply is infinite, but the demand is always greater. Americans, it seems, are ever hungry for news on how children are poorly raised, and why parents are doing it all wrong. One of the most repeated criticisms is that Americans overindulge their children.

Here it is in 1912, as written for the Post by Maude Radford Warren.

Our children are spoiled, bad-mannered and ungrateful… in the American home the child rules from babyhood until it marries or otherwise leaves its home… the parents [provide food and money] to the child, asking for nothing but the chance to sacrifice themselves for their young.

Ms. Warren came to this conclusion by comparing the children of the new century to the offspring of Puritans and colonial pioneers.

 [The child] learned his manners and his morals by implication and example, though perhaps his religion was belted into him more consciously. There was no colonial parent who sighed, “My child is such a problem!” and no child who said, “My parents are so out-of-date!” There were no filial problems—there rarely are when the problem of getting the food supply is still in the nature of a hard adventure.

In comparison, the average, middle-income family of 1912 was characterized by demanding children and parents who over-analyzed their job.

In our passion for our young—our desire to do right by them—we have raised parenthood to a profession. We are so afraid of not understanding fully that we try to be scientific as well as loving… Some one discovered that the child had rights, and then we began to see that what we were giving him from love we should be giving him from a sense of justice. Our consciences began to work overtime.

The trouble begins with young people who have a naïve faith that all will turn out well for people in love.

They meet; love and Nature throw a net about them, and the world seems to them an alluring and a secure place. They stand up before the minister and the guests and are made one. Among the guests are those who are widowed and divorced and childless, sick and distressed, disgraced and old. The couple see them; but the things that life and chance have wrought for these guests do not touch the consciousness of the happy two. Life is going to be different for them.

And for a time, life is.

[With the first baby, the young father has] parental responsibility without a full realization of what chance and circumstance may do to him.

He will give them a better start than he had.  All he has had to give up they shall not give up—not while he has a finger left to work for them.

Being an American, [he] values freedom more than any other quality. When he finds his own quota of it smaller than he had counted on, he at once desires it for his children. The simplest way he knows of measuring freedom is in terms of money. He coins his lifeblood cheerfully.

Perhaps American parents were unrealistic about their children, she reflected, because they’d been unrealistic about marriage.

Parents go on bravely planning and sacrificing for children without dreaming of expecting gratitude—at least, we tell ourselves, not while the children are little.

Our reward is to make them happy; our theory that, if we cannot make up our minds to live for our children, we ought not to have any.  We wish to make it up to them because the world cannot be just as ideal as it seemed when the honeymoon was shimmering.

American couples had become so focused on being successful parents—providing their children every desirable object and opportunity—that they couldn’t see what sort of child they were producing.

 What the American parent enjoys most of all—unless he is the wise exception—is lavishing on his children things he never had and always wanted when he was little.  Nothing delights their father more than to see them at play, surrounded and all but satiated with toys.

Of course, [the father] idolizes these children and overrates their importance. He may know they are rude and tiresome, only ordinarily intelligent and not at all diligent; but he cannot feel this.

Ms. Warren works on the same parental concerns that journalists still use today: parents’ uncertainty and resentment, the worry that they do too much, the suspicion that more discipline and limitations for the child would make everything better.

 There has been practically no one to tell us that, if we give the child his rights and develop his individuality, the rights of the parent may have to be small. Perhaps a faint piping voice is raised now and again on behalf of the parent, but it is soon smothered.

And there are constantly increasing numbers of teachers and writers to tell us how to maintain the rights of the child. Sometimes, when the doctrine is translated into action, its results are of the sort that would have made the early settlers gasp and reach for a rod, with which to put the fear of the Lord into a child.

Mother wishes to be a competent parent. … She goes to classes to find out what her children should read and how to discipline them, avoiding that dreadful danger of waiting until they do wrong and then colliding with them. Plenty of people tell her what she should do, but no one warns her that in respecting the individuality of the child she may lose her own.

Like many articles on the continuing crisis in parenting, “The Decay Of The American Parent” (Sep 14, 1912) starts with sensation and ends in moderation.

Fortunately we are not all decayed parents. Plenty of us have struck the balance between self-abnegation and folly between indulgence and severity. Many of us have adapted the pedagogy of the schools to our own individual needs, throwing away what is stupid or valueless and digging into our own imaginative resources to make the naughty conduct of our children react on their own heads.

And even when we are handling our children badly—even when we have decayed as parents—from the ashes of us spring our young, who, as parents, will profit by our particular mistakes.

Ms. Warren would probably recognize the endless stream of expert advice for parents, though she might be surprised that the extremes range from ‘Tiger Moms’ to Attachment Mothering.

She probably wouldn’t recognize how much the world of the child has changed in 100 years. For the most part, they get the food, clothing, and shelter they need, but Security and Hope are less abundant today than five generations ago.

They cope with endlessly revised school curricula, drugs, violence, rapid and continual changes in technology, and a formidable challenge in escaping the pull of childhood and dependency when 85% of college graduates move back in with their parents for lack of ready work.

It wasn’t easy then. It’s not easy now.