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Fatherhood’s In the Genes

Posted by Vincent DiCaro

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Sep 13, 2012

A recent op-ed in The New York Times provides dads with more evidence of why they are important to their children.

The article is written from a health perspective – and the science of genetics and epigenetics can be very complex – but the takeaway for dads is this: your behavior and lifestyle choices over the course of your life become “imprinted” on your genes, and, consequently, are passed down to your children and grandchildren.

spermFor example, if you experience a lot of stress, your body responds, the sperm you produce are affected by this response, and then you pass your “stress” on to your children.

Same goes for alcohol or drug abuse, malnutrition, obesity, and several other behavior-related phenomenon.

The lesson – living a healthy, stress-free life will give you a better chance of having healthy children!

The writer points out that, as a result of these findings, dads are now in a position to share the burden that pregnant moms have carried for years – that their health and lifestyle choices were being scrutinized because they were the ones carrying the baby.

It is good that dads will take on this added responsibility, and there are two sides to the coin. While dads will now share the blame for an unhealthy child (“He smoked his whole life before becoming a father and it messed up his sperm!”), they will also be able to share in the credit for a healthy child (“He has been a healthy eater his whole life and it got passed down to his hale and hearty children!”).

There is not much to say about the article other than that, but I was certainly expecting something different when I saw the headline, “Why Fathers Really Matter.” I expected a discussion of the social science research that details the unique and irreplaceable role that fathers play in their children’s lives; I wasn't expecting a science article. But that is because I am not “normal” – I have worked at NFI for 10 years so my expectations about the media’s discussion of fatherhood are probably different than 99.9% of the people on the planet.

Beyond that, I also noticed that the headline could be read in two ways, and I am not sure which one the writer meant. The skeptic in me read the word “really” in the headline this way: the ways that we usually talk about why fathers matter – that they play a unique and irreplaceable role in the upbringing of children -- aren’t the ways that really matter. The ways that really matter are solely in the purview of genetics – dads should be careful how they live because they can pass bad (or good) stuff onto their children.

But again, my 10 years at NFI have tainted me. The other more innocent way of reading the headline is this: fathers really matter and here is more evidence as to why they do.

So that I can sleep well tonight, I will assume that is what the headline means and dream about a world that is increasingly recognizing just how much kids need good, responsible dads.

I think that is a dream we can all share.

photo credit: bhav.bhav

Topics: research, New York Times, genetics

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