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5 Ways Fathers Can Use Science and Nature to Bond with Their Children

The following is a post from Christopher A. Brown, Executive Vice President of National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). Interested in blogging for us? Email here.

The connection between nature and mothers is pretty obvious. From the moment of conception, mothers are inextricably, biologically linked to their children. Mothers’ hormone levels continually fluctuate during pregnancy as their bodies partner with nature to give their children the ultimate environment in which to grow. This connection continues when mothers breastfeed as their bodies release oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” thus providing a way for mothers’ biological connection to their children to continue well after birth.  

5 ways fathers can   the male brainBut what about fathers? Science now reveals that mothers don’t have the market cornered when it comes to being biologically connected to their children. Nature also provides a way for men to prepare for the arrival of their children and to bond with them well after birth. In her ground-breaking book The Male Brain, neuropsychologist Louann Brizedene points out that men’s hormone levels change during the pregnancy of their partners. Specifically, men’s levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) increase. This change puts men’s brains on “alert” for the arrival of their babies. In contrast, men’s levels of testosterone (the “wandering hormone”) decrease. This change lowers their competiveness, aggression, and sex drive.  

After their children are born, men’s oxytocin and prolactin levels increase with their prolactin levels falling to “pre-arrival” levels only after their babies start to walk (12 to 16 months, on average). Prolactin further decreases men’s testosterone levels. Researchers in Israel took this knowledge a step further when they measured oxytocin levels in 80 first-time parent couples shortly after the birth of their children. They found that fathers’ oxytocin levels were just as high as mothers’ when their children were 6 weeks and 6 months, suggesting that fathers’ hormone levels “dance” in harmony with mothers’.  

But they didn’t stop there. The researchers also observed how the increased bonding driven by high levels of oxytocin affected the way that fathers and mothers play with their children. What they found is that higher levels of oxytocin do not equate with the same kinds of parenting behaviors. Indeed, it seems to enhance the unique ways in which mothers and fathers play with their children which, as research shows, benefits children. The researchers discovered that when they compared mothers’ oxytocin levels that those with higher levels exhibited the most "affectionate parenting behaviors." When they compared fathers’ levels they found that those with the highest levels exhibited the most "stimulatory parenting behaviors."  

What’s the kicker? For all of these changes to occur, fathers have to be involved during mothers’ pregnancies and after the birth of their children. They have to view nature as their partner by engaging in activities that create close physical and emotional connections with mothers during pregnancy and with mothers and their children after their children are born. Here are 5 ways that a father can do just that:  

  1. Live with the mother. This advice might seem painfully obvious, but in today’s world of increasing out-of-wedlock childbirths (now at a record level) the chances of fathers not being around are all too real. The best way for a father to ensure constant physical proximity is to be married to the mother of his children.
  2. Spend as much time with the mother as possible. This advice might also seem painfully obvious, but one of the reasons time together is so important is that the exchange of pheromones between a father and mother during and after pregnancy might contribute to the father’s hormonal changes. This exchange can only happen when the father and mother are around each other on a consistent basis.
  3. Prepare to be a dad. During the pregnancy, a father should deepen his involvement in the pregnancy by reading books about becoming a dad and what it takes to be a great dad, attending as many of the mother’s prenatal visits as possible to support her, and enrolling, with the mother, in childbirth education classes.
  4. Encourage the mother to breastfeed. A father should encourage the mother to breastfeed while she is still pregnant. Breastfeeding will help the mother and baby to bond and benefit them in many other ways. A father can be involved in this effort by helping the mother to freeze her breast milk. He can warm it and feed it to his child in the middle of the night to allow the mother to catch some extra, needed sleep and, in doing so, further bond with his child.  
  5. Attend well-child check-ups and use NFI’s Countdown to Growing Up™. A father can deepen his involvement after the birth by attending well-child check-ups. A father can track his child’s development from birth to age 18 with NFI’s free Countdown to Growing Up™ child growth and development tracker. A father enters his child’s age and gender and the tool generates a chart of physical, mental, and social milestones appropriate for his child. He can use this information to more effectively dialogue with the mother and his child’s doctor about his child’s growth and development. NFI also has a number of free articles with advice on how to be a new dad and a great dad.

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image: istockphoto

Does Having a Family Change the Work-Life Balance Equation?

The following is a post from Christopher A. Brown, Executive Vice President of National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). If you would like to blog for us, email here.

work life balance

You’re probably aware that more fathers than ever carry more of the load at home while they continue to build their professional careers. As reported in NFI’s most recent edition of Father Facts, the gap between the number of hours that mothers and fathers care for their children and do routine household chores has closed dramatically. While this shift to a more egalitarian household has benefits for fathers, mothers, and children, there’s also a downside for fathers—an increase in stress in the delicate balance between work and family life. Indeed, recent research (also reported in Father Facts) reveals that more men than women report this stress. Many men say that they would trade their current job for one that provides for more work-life balance.  

In light of this research—and my own struggles through the years to juggle work and family life—I was taken aback by Embrace Work-Life Imbalance, a blog post by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic that appeared on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic takes issue with studies on the harmful effects of excessive work because they “rely on subjective evaluations of ‘work overload’”. He goes on to say that work overload is only possible if you don’t enjoy and have fun at work and that we should, essentially, stop crying over spilled milk (he refers to people who complain about poor work-life balance as “self-indulgent”) and stop talking about work-life balance or, at the very least, redefine it.    

Intrigued by his proposition, I kept reading to determine whether he has a point. His rationale for redefining work-life imbalance rests on the premise that the key to work-life balance is working hard at something that you enjoy (i.e. are passionate about). He asks the reader to consider five factors that, together, lead to the conclusion that we must “switch on” rather than “switch off” in relation to work. He says that too few people enjoy work. As long as we can engage in work we find fun, the amount of work we do is irrelevant.  

I love my work and have a lot of fun doing it. (My daughters often say that I’m a “professional dad” given my work with NFI.) But while I don’t dispute Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic’s point about the need to embrace work-life imbalance from a general perspective, I wonder whether he would change his mind if he focused on the impact that a family has on a man’s view of work-life balance. (As an aside, many experts on work-life balance consider work-family balance to be a sub-category of work-life balance.) Does the value in embracing work-life imbalance change when a man has a wife and children? Absolutely! Why? Because a family changes the dynamics of the work-life equation. Without a family, work is life for many men because it defines us. The centrality of work in how men define themselves is the foundation for our struggle to balance work and family. When we marry and have a family, we expand our view of what brings meaning to our lives. The amount of work we do becomes relevant regardless of how much we enjoy it. Work no longer holds sway over our lives, and it shouldn’t. It should remain, however, vitally important. We should continue to work hard, embrace it, and enjoy it. But it must not own us.       

What do you think? Do I have a valid point? Share your comments. We’d love to hear from you!

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photo credit: adesigna

Most Popular Post of 2012 — The Difference Between a Man and a Boy

The Father Factor Blog closes the year by reposting our most popular blog post of 2012! Thank you for reading and connecting with us this year. We've enjoyed talking parenting tips and tools. Today, without further delay, we give you our most popular blog post of 2012!

Adapted from the original blog: 
You know the guy. He’s a friend of yours. Everyone knows the guy who’d rather play video games 24/7 and live in his parents’ basement. You know, the guy who takes the storyline behind his favorite board game a wee bit too seriously. Yeah, you know the guy, as do I. I think I’ve figured out what makes this guy different from the one not living in his parents’ basement.

difference between man and boy

This difference is explored in Philip G. Zimbardo’s new research and book The Demise of Guys, which reveals things we’ve thought for years, but just haven’t talked about - that guys are “flaming out.”

So what’s behind this research? Zimbardo’s complaining brings great insight into the core issue. Zimbardo says media and education and society at large are the problems. Society is the “major contributor to this demise because [it is] inhibiting guys’ intellectual, creative and social abilities right from the start.” The result is young men with a lack of purpose, basic social skills, who live off of their parents.

While I think Zimbardo’s research does well to reveal the problem, the solution isn’t adapting some societal strategy to make men out of boys by retraining society to not inhibit them. Society has its issues, of course. But the problem, in my eyes, lies with the boy. There’s a difference between a boy and a man. Always has been, always will be. If you have no plan to leave your parents’ house, you’re a boy. If you don’t relate to women as equals, you’re a boy. If you aren’t emotionally able to cherish your wife, you’re a boy. If you play video games 24/7 and you’re not actually designing the games, you’re just a boy without a purpose.

Therefore, I don’t blame media, society or women – I blame father absence.

Boys learn the kinds of behaviors Zimbardo talks about from their fathers. We live in an age of mass father absence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America -- one out of three -- live in biological father-absent homes. Two in three African American children live in father-absent homes. Consequently, there is a "father factor" in nearly all of the social issues facing America today. From poverty, maternal and child health, incarceration, crime, teen pregnancy, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, education, and childhood obesity – fatherhood changes these issues, for good or ill.

Every generation has its things for which to watch out. Sure, this generation has seen a “rise of technology enchantment” as Zimbardo points out. I certainly have more technology-related temptations than my father did. Each generation has its forms of seduction. This generation’s may be video games and online porn. My father’s temptations may have been print magazines and watching too many sports on TV. All I know is that the temptation to live for oneself will always be with us – it is part of the human condition.

The difference, though, today is that fewer and fewer boys have the stabilizing presence of an involved, responsible, and committed father in their lives to help them navigate a world of temptations and make the transition from self-centeredness to other-centeredness – the transition from boyhood to manhood. The “demise of guys” is really, at its root, the absence of fathers.

Read the original blog post: The Difference Between a Man and a Boy

Which blog post was your favorite of 2012?

photo credit: practicalowl 

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Doomed to Fail

The following is a post from Christopher A. Brown, Executive Vice President of National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). If you would like to blog for us, email here.

The October 22nd issue of The New Yorker includes an article by Michael Specter titled “Germs Are Us.” Specter chronicles how our understanding of the relationship between humans and bacteria has evolved since the advent of antibiotics in the early 20th century. We know now that not all bacteria are harmful. Indeed, many bacteria live in symbiosis with their human hosts and confer health benefits including protection from some diseases. These bacteria include all of those we find in our mouth and gut that aid our ability to digest food and ward off illness. Unfortunately, the overuse of antibiotics indiscriminately kill bacteria including those that are our friends.

bacteriaThere are many bacteria, however, that aren’t our friends. That knowledge has given rise to an industry dedicated to the eradication of bacteria—just take a walk down the soap and disinfectant aisle of your local grocery store, and you’ll find all manner of anti-bacterial soaps, wipes, and sprays. There’s no disputing the fact that we’ve been liberated and are safer from the scourge of unfriendly bacteria, at least to an extent. But at what cost? As the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Scientists now believe that we’ve become “underexposed” to bacteria and no longer build the antibodies, particularly as youngsters, that we once did to ward of future illness. (This underexposure also extends to viruses, such as rhinovirus which causes the common cold.) Consequently, we’ve seen a rise in allergies, asthma, and obesity. Yes, even obesity has now been linked to the overuse of antibiotics that has caused a reduction in a bacterium that inhabits our guts and regulates two hormones that, in turn, regulate appetite.

It is this symbiotic relationship between bacteria and us—two life forms that need one another to survive in a state of health and well-being—that made me think in a slightly different way about the path our society has taken in its treatment of fathers as nice but not necessary. Our society is creating a huge, dangerous experiment as we systematically eliminate fathers from more families. And yet we’re conducting this experiment with the knowledge that it is doomed to fail. That’s where this experiment departs from our attempt to eradicate bacteria, and therein lies the problem.

In the years between Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and the realization that we were overprescribing antibiotics to ill effect, we didn’t realize what we were doing. Doctors know now that they must be judicious in their use of antibiotics, although they certainly have some work to do and some of the effects of overuse might be irreversible. We know from reams and decades of research that DNA isn’t the only necessary ingredient from fathers for the creation of healthy children who grow up to be well-functioning adults. Their presence and positive influence as children age is necessary as well.

In other words, children’s health and well-being depends on the symbiotic relationship they have with their fathers. Children can and do survive without fathers in their lives, but at what cost to them and our communities? We know that, on average, children from father-absent homes are at greater risk for a range of social ills. Communities with high rates of father absence suffer as well (e.g. high rates of poverty and violent behavior). And yet we continue with this dangerous experiment that we know will fail. Why is that? Especially when we know it has already failed so many children.

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photo credit: Microbe World

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