Patriarch games - The role of the father

Men often feel like a spare part when babies come along. But fathers do have a purpose – and there's scientific research to prove it. Gerard Gilbert reports

Dads – do you feel a bit of a spare part? Do you see yourself in relation to your kids as about as useful as a stick of furniture – one of the lesser used pieces, like the side table in the guest bedroom? Well, the good news, delivered in a BBC documentary just in time for Father's Day, is that those traditional dad activities, such as talking over your children's head with long words and complex sentences, or swinging them around so that their shoulders threaten to come out of their sockets, are biologically useful. Fathers make evolutionary sense – and not just as reconstructed pseudo-mummies, or "new dads".

"There's a lot of talk at the moment about the absence of fathers, and a curiosity about what it is that fathers actually do," says child psychologist Laverne Antrobus, presenter of "The Biology of Dads", a one-off documentary in BBC Four's Fatherhood season. "In some ways, parenting has been merged. Fathers have been invited to be like mothers rather than to be like fathers – this idea of everything being about nurture. So I wondered what it must be like for fathers who think, 'What do I do that's unique and a bit different?'" Antrobus has collated the latest academic research on the subject, including the already well understood role of the kind of rough-and-tumble games preferred by fathers, which teach toddlers the boundaries of aggression and discipline.

Less well known is the part fathers play in language development – conversing with their toddlers, seemingly inappropriately, as if with a fellow adult. "Mums are constantly adapting their vocabulary so a child knows the word, but dads spur them on," says Antrobus. "They not only use longer words, but they encourage more complex uses of language, such as wit and sarcasm."

Never mind that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, the gist of Antrobus's film is that fathers consistently push boundaries and nurture independence. What men might find less palatable is what has been happening to their hormones in the meantime. For in a very real, biological sense, fathers of newborn children become more like women.

Now, I remember my wife regularly declaring that her hormones "were all over the shop" while she was pregnant, and in the months after she gave birth to our daughter. Little did I suspect that my own hormones were also on the march. Firstly, it seems that the female hormone prolactin, which triggers lactation and the urge to breast-feed, and which lies dormant in men, springs into action in fathers-to-be. Indeed there is a syndrome known as Couvade Syndrome, or "sympathetic pregnancy", whereby the partners of pregnant women report feelings of morning sickness as well as the urge to binge eat unusual foods. Simultaneously, the key male hormone, testosterone, the one strongly associated with aggression, goes into free fall, back to levels not experienced since before puberty.

Dr Nick Neave, an evolutionary psychologist at Northumbria University, reckons this is nature's way of curbing a new father's behaviour. "You don't want some big, butch, hairy, violent male around these infants, because males who are high in testosterone have low levels of frustration tolerance," he says. "You don't want these guys flying off the handle when the baby starts to cry."

Even so, in the case of "shaken baby syndrome" the overwhelming proportion of perpetrators are men. One can only imagine the carnage if levels of testosterone didn't drop off naturally. And how does this square with anecdotal evidence that suggests that the birth of a child sometimes triggers either physical abuse directed at the mother, or the man loping off to have have an affair with another woman? "We didn't go there (in the film) because if you've got somebody who is prone to domestic violence there will be a lot of other things that are happening at about that time. There will be a dynamic in that relationship that is around vulnerability, for instance", says Antrobus. "In an evolutionary sense, what is really important is that you get this drop in testosterone, thank goodness; it's an opportunity to get the best out of dads."

In her BBC film, Antrobus observes an experiment in which a new father is handed a doll wrapped in his daughter's blanket. His child's pheromones, the chemical messengers that can affect someone else's behaviour, soon have the new father protectively cradling the doll and subconsciously comforting it with blanket tucking and pats to the back. The experiment is repeated with a testosterone-packed single male, who might as well be – in Laverne's words – "holding a sack of spuds".

A father's testosterone levels creep back up as the child grows and becomes less vulnerable, at which stage his replenished masculinity, as we have seen, starts to have a beneficial effect on the child's development. This positive influence continues through the teenage years, when a father's less emotional, more unambiguous approach to discipline can often be more effective. And it seems that a father's influence can influence the partner his daughter chooses: a good relationship with her father often means she looks for a mate with similar physical attributes to her male parent. In Antrobus's film a group of students is asked to match for physical likeness photographs of women and their partners with photographs of the women's fathers – an advanced game of snap that they conclude with unerring accuracy.

And then there is a surprising biological effect that a father can have on his daughter. Studies show that girls who grow up with an absent fathers look older and start their periods earlier. It seems that a need for male protection is causing them to reach sexual maturity earlier. All very interesting, but wasn't Antrobus at risk of making single mothers feel inadequate with her film?

"I felt a bit mixed making this because there will be a lot of single mums out there who'll be thinking, 'Gosh, does that mean my kids are not getting x,y or z?' It's really not supposed to say that. Actually I think that the reality for single parents – mums or dads – is that they are tasked with taking both roles, and most of them do that well enough.

"I hope [the film] is taken at face value," she says. "It really felt like there was a need to say, 'Come on dads, you do do something which is uniquely different and which your child is crying out for – so get in there.'

"Despite what we've tried to do over the generations in terms of how mums and dads are perceived, or how men and women are perceived, our children are still very much fixed on 'your mum is the one who looks after you this way, your dad does things slightly different'. And it's important that he does."

'The Biology of Dads' screens on Tuesday 22 June, at 9pm on BBC Four.

What fathers are for


Fathers can spur language development by using less "baby talk" and more adult language, even if the vocabulary seems to fly over the child's head. They can even teach complex verbal skills like wit and sarcasm.


A father's more adventurous play can encourage children to explore beyond their comfort zone, and learn how to take sensible risks. "They are always pushing a child more, when mums are more hesitant," says Laverne Antrobus. "Rough-housing allows the child to exert power but also respect limits."


Fathers can make more effective disciplinarians, especially during the teenage years, adopting less emotive reasoning than mothers. Studies have also found that single fathers find it more important than single mothers to set up routines in the home, from regular meals to bedtimes.


Studies show that girls who grow up with absent fathers start their periods on average 12 months before other girls, and reach sexual maturity earlier, probably in a natural response to the need for male protection. In short, girls without fathers grow up faster.

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Arts and Entertainment
Ella Henderson's first studio album has gone straight to the top of the charts
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

Life and Style
Paul Nuttall, left, is seen as one of Ukip's key weapons in selling the party to the North of England
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand labelled 'left-wing commie scum' by Fox News
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow


Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
Arts and Entertainment
artKaren Wright tours the fair and wishes she had £11m to spare
Life and Style
Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh been invited to take part in Women Fashion Power, a new exhibition that celebrates the way women's fashion has changed in relation to their growing power and equality over the past 150 years
fashionKirsty and Camila swap secrets about how to dress for success
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

    £60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

    Year 5/6 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Permanent Year 6 TeacherThe job:This...

    KS1 & KS2 Teachers

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: KS1+KS2 Teachers required ASAP for l...

    Year 2 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 2 Teacher The position is to wo...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past