Thursday, 17 April 2014

Want your daughter to become 'sexually unrestricted'?

I have two young boys. So I can only speculate as to what it is like to be a father of girls, notably at the point at which they become sexually active. And I speculate it may be rather like this superb story from stand-up comedian Phil Jupitus.

If, for whatever reason, you would prefer your daughter to have sex later rather than sooner, it turns out the key may be to remain engaged in her upbringing. According to this Scientific American Mind article, “Researchers have revealed a robust association between father absence – both physical and psychological – and accelerated reproductive development and sexual risk-taking in daughters”.

The researcher, Sarah Hill at Texas Christian University, explains:

“When Dad is absent, it basically provides young girls with a cue about what the future holds in terms of the mating system they are born into.” When a girl's family is disrupted, and her father leaves or is not close to her, she sees her future: men don't stay for long, and her partner might not stick around either. So finding a man requires quick action. The sooner she is ready to have children, the better. She cannot consciously decide to enter puberty earlier, but her biology takes over, subconsciously. “This would help facilitate what we call, in evolutionary sciences, a faster reproductive strategy”.

The researchers are the first to admit that the links between puberty and a father's presence are just associations. They do not reveal what causes these changes. The article continues:

'In the ideal experiment that would answer this question, we would assemble a group of families and randomly assign some of the fathers to abandon their families and others to stay. Obviously, this proposal is not likely to win approval from an ethics board. So what is the next best thing? Hill and DelPriore designed an experiment in which young women—some of them teenagers and others just past their teen years—were asked to write about an incident in which their father supported them and then were encouraged to write about a time he was not there for them. Then they were asked about their attitudes toward sexual behavior. If the researchers' hypothesis was correct, memories of unpleasant father experiences would lead the young women to express more favorable views of risky sexual behavior. Pleasant memories of their fathers should push them in the opposite direction.
And that is what happened. Women became “more sexually unrestricted” after recalling an incident in which their father was disengaged, Hill explained. Further experiments showed that father disengagement did not change women's views of other kinds of risky behavior; for instance, they were not more likely to ride a bike without a helmet. The effect was limited to sex.'

Not like riding a bike
There is plenty more of interest in the article, including the hypothesis that a father's involvement could have a different effect on sons, enhancing a competitive urge and spurring sons to achieve more when they grow up and leave the family. So do read it.

There's also the important point that 'fathers have been widely overlooked in scientific studies. For example, in 2005 psychologist Vicky Phares of the University of South Florida reviewed 514 studies of clinical child and adolescent psychology from the leading psychological journals. Nearly half of them excluded fathers.'

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

'When did being a good father become so complicated?'

That's the question posed by Alex Blimes in this rather long and slightly confused piece in The Guardian. I suspect the answer is 'when the broadsheets started paying people by the word to write about it'.

No doubt I risk accusations of pot-kettle-black here, but I don't think being a good father actually is that complicated, mainly because what's needed are the characteristics of a good person in general. You just need to take some time, be loving, set boundaries but have fun, and relax. I recognise that this is an ideal I don't always live up to, but this blog was intended to be more about celebrating the numerous examples I come across of Dads getting it pretty much right, rather than worrying too much about when we don't.

I'm sure Alex and I agree on many things. For example, when he says approvingly of his friend that 'He is not defined solely, or overwhelmingly, or even chiefly, by his child-rearing achievements and expertise', I agree that is desirable. Although retaining a decent chunk of your own identity in the face of the competing demands of work, marriage and fatherhood is not an easy task, it is indeed an important one.

But maybe where we diverge is when Alex writes:

When did being a good father get so complicated? Is there any middle ground, or must one either go full Wet Wipe or be a lazy, incompetent, dinosaur? Is it still possible, as it certainly used to be, to get away with the occasional omelette, some skewwhiff shelves in the spare room and, once in a blue moon, a full day with the kids so your other half can go out?

I know the answer to that last question. It's no, probably not. The expectations of fathers have changed. More is demanded of us.

You can't make an omlette without reading a 3000 word article
about whether or not you're doing it properly
I'm not sure I agree with that. Of course there's still a middle ground, occupied by the vast majority of Dads. And if expectations of Dads have changed, I'm not convinced that pressure comes from the Mums or from Society in general, I think it's largely internal. Perhaps more Dads are realising that no, it's not acceptable to do a half-arsed job when it comes to something as important as raising your own children. Surely that's no bad thing.

No doubt many of us are still wrestling with how to juggle the various aspects of our hectic lives, just as many women are. And no doubt that will lead to endless hand-wringing and troll-baiting in the liberal broadsheets, on radio phone-ins and on blogs like this one. But at the end of the day most Dads I know appreciate they are not and never can be perfect, but that as long as they love their children and show them that through what they say and what they do then they're not going to go far wrong.

The last word should surely go to this great New Yorker piece from a couple of days ago: 'A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit.'

Monday, 24 March 2014

Dad dancing – 'like an apple going brown'

While it's on the BBC iPlayer, you have to listen to the feature on BBC Woman's Hour about 'Dad dancing'. It starts at 12:15.

'They call it Dad Dancing,' says the presenter. 'It's when a man jerks and jiggles to the music and his children shriek at him to stop because it's embarrassing. Dads… seem to feel they are not the greatest dancers, so they hang back or just shuffle a bit.'

This, the presenter goes on, is despite research from Goldsmiths which shows that more men than women can recognise a beat accurately, so men should be better dancers than women. Guest on the show, the wonderful Dr Peter Lovatt, says that 'data tells us that men are born to dance', and as they get older they tend not to because they are self-conscious, they feel they haven't got any motor co-ordination, they feel they don't know what to do.

I wouldn't disagree with that, having been in an audience of hundreds at one of Peter's talk where I was literally the only person not joining in (the rest were students). I'm sure there are, as he says, social and psychological reasons why men don't dance. But I do have a few points to make.

Firstly, although I do tend to have prohibitively dodgy knees when it comes to a conference Ceilidh or some line dancing at a wedding, give me Andy Weatherall in the DJ booth or a 90's indie disco and I may well be tempted out of retirement. As the salsa teacher on Woman's Hour said, 'when they relax after a few classes' – I heard 'glasses'.

Secondly, I'm not so convinced 'Mum Dancing' is that different. 'Show your wrists' anyone?

Thirdly, I had to laugh when Peter came to the possible evolutionary psychology explanation. 'If dancing is part of the human mate selection process, like an apple going brown is meant to put people off eating it, perhaps middle-aged men dancing in this uncoordinated way might be signalling to women that they are not the right people to mate with.'

I don't need dance to send that signal! I'm well aware that I'm now past it... if I was labouring under any illusions they were shattered on a 'Dads night out' in the Peak District a couple of years ago. Freed from parenting duties by our other halves, we had a great pub crawl round Castleton, ending in a lock-in where we found ourselves chatting to some younger women – pretty much as equals, we thought. We would never, of course, have dreamt of performing any mating rituals, but I suspect some of us thought that in a parallel universe it might have been an option. Until, that is, one of the young ladies in question uttered the immortal line 'You know, you've really restored my faith in the older generation.'

So I think most 'Dad dancing' isn't about sending unconscious messages from some primordial past... we know we're the brown apple, and we're celebrating by dancing like nobody's watching. Because nobody is.

As with all evolutionary psychology though, this should lead to testable predictions. Peter, what of it? Do Dads dance worse than married non-fathers, and worse still than single men of the same age? Do they know they do? Do they in fact dance their worst when their kids are watching, because embarrassing them is fun? Do married men with two kids and a vasectomy dance worse than anyone else? It would be nice to have an excuse that's backed by science…

Friday, 17 January 2014

Dads on holiday

Having just booked my first ever proper, foreign, all-inclusive family holiday, I am very hopeful that the effect on me will be something like this.

Because that's what it's like, isn't it Dads? Before the holiday, you tend to arrive home at midnight, never speak to your family, break everything you touch and generally groan under the weight of your hideous deformities. It's a wonder you don't literally eat those children. But once you get on holiday, you slowly begin to participate in life, culminating with a sequence where your horns fall off (but you still manage to frighten the life out of a hotel maid), you stagger with your last ounce of energy into the sea… and then you emerge as a new man, a hunky fella whose family are happy to jump on, possibly including your wife (all these ads tend to hold out the hope of more sex with your wife).

Even though it's yet more 'Dads, eh? What are they like?' advertising, I'm not annoyed by the ad... I'm more annoyed that it's pretty much true (apart from the sex with your wife bit).