ABOUT THE time the dinosaurs were gasping their last breath, a chain of events began that would forever change the meaning of parenthood. In the trees of some primeval forest, small insect eaters evolved specialized sweat glands -- breasts -- whose secretions were only digestible by babies.
Breasts permitted mothers to set aside nutrients that could be used exclusively by their babies for a long time. This innovation in maternal devotion was soon followed by another: the placenta. With placentas, the young could draw benefits from their mothers for a much longer period than they could with yolk sacs. Longer gestation and longer infancies permitted mammals to develop better bodies, brains and behaviors. Maternal care extended to the prolonged provision of protection, instruction, devotion and love.
Breasts and placentas were a great step forward in helping parents invest in their young, but there was more to come. The rise of Homo sapiens brought to its apogee the finest but most tenuous method of investing in children. A devoted father could join the devoted mother.
Devoted fathers solve what had been the concern of every mother: how to care for children while gathering resources. At first, human fathers may have been nothing more than "providers" who would return from a hunt with fresh meat to share. Those days are gone. We have in the last decade accumulated great evidence to prove that the contemporary father is capable of being much more to his children than a meal ticket.
A father's money cannot substitute for his devoted attention. To succeed in life, our children must develop self-esteem, a sense of security and a sense that the future is valuable. They need to learn to negotiate with a variety of genders, races and ages. The father can both instruct in negotiation with the world of adult men and can model the proper concern of adult men for the well-being of children.
Homo sapiens joined breasts and placentas with the greatest child enhancer ever invented -- a set of two different but devoted parents who could transmit both calories and culture to the child over decades.
The evidence that fathers are important factors in the success of children is overwhelming. Even at six weeks, infants can tell the difference between fathers and mothers. Scientists have observed that at the approach of a father, an infant will hunch its shoulders and raise its eyebrows, anticipating fatherly excitement.
One pair of sociologists studied more than 25,000 children in families without fathers or stepfathers. Children from such disrupted families were more apt to drop out of school, become delinquent or idle or become teen parents, no matter what their household income. Another set of researchers found that children who live with single parents or step-parents receive less help with schoolwork than those who live with both natural parents.
My research suggests an association between the presence of a father and a child's ability to value the future.
Fathers are more willing to enforce discipline. They exact high performance. They offer adult male validation of a child's masculinity or femininity. The emerging consensus is that fathers succeed not by being motherly, but by being fatherly.
Fathers have always been a precious resource. In the past, shorter life expectancy meant fewer children reached adulthood with living fathers. The tragedy for children in our society is that at a time in history when they are least likely to lose their fathers to death and disease, human choices contrive to render American children as fatherless as ever.
Unfortunately, this century's tremendous surplus of health and economic resources have been used to finance single parenthood. The single best explanation for the complex decline of marriage is that it is no longer seen as a financially necessary arrangement for raising children. The economic importance of fathers may have changed, but nothing has changed their emotional importance. Too often, unwed and divorced parents fail to rise to the daunting task of keeping the father in his child's DTC life.
Perhaps if we spent not only Father's Day, but every day, celebrating loving fathers we could summon the courage to keep men with their children.
On Sunday, cameras will snap photos of fathers being honored in homes across our land. Some willhave had to overcome years of mistakes and pain to be reunited with children who long ago gave up on them. The pictures will include mothers who found a way to allow a child and a child's father to come back together and second wives who do not feel threatened by the love of a father for prior children. In the background, there might be a congregation that decided to support fathers, a school that worked hard to include non-custodial dads, or supportive friends at work.
In each of the pictures will be children who need the love of a father. In each picture, you will see courage.
David Bishai is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
Pub Date: 6/19/98