Does Western society have a limited view of what fathers can contribute?

Research in the Congo Basin suggests there is no one-size-fits-all view of fatherhood
peterjamesanthony, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
peterjamesanthony, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Across human societies, fathers make significant contributions to their children’s health and well-being. However, what society expects of men as fathers differs from culture to culture, and men’s abilities and style of fathering varies as well. Researchers are only just beginning to unravel the complex relationship between culture and fatherhood.

Compared to some of our closest primate relatives, like chimpanzees or gorillas, human fathers stand out in the amount of time and resources they devote to their children. This trend likely started deep in our species’ evolutionary past. Indeed, cooperation between fathers and mothers was one of the critical traits that led to the evolution of the incredible behavioral flexibility that defines our species.

However, culture has shaped parenting goals and practices to fit local social and ecological conditions throughout human history. Therefore, to understand human fatherhood in a broad sense, we need to study fathers across human societies facing a variety of conditions.

Taking a closer look at different concepts of fatherhood

To further our knowledge of the diverse ways men may contribute to the health and well-being of their children, my colleagues and I have been investigating the nature of fatherhood in two small-scale, subsistence societies in the Republic of the Congo. The Bondongo fisher-farmers and the BaYaka foragers live in an ethnically segregated but deeply intertwined community in the Congo Basin tropical forest. Their different modes of subsistence and contrasting values have led to distinctive but overlapping concepts of fatherhood, offering an opportunity to study the complex relationships between culture, fatherhood, and child health.

In our approach to fatherhood research, we assume that men at our field site—like men everywhere in the world—vary in their abilities and styles of fathering. Therefore, we expect both between- and within-group differences due to cultural and individual variation. Based on these ideas, in one recent study, we asked: Does a Bondongo father’s “fit” to his society’s cultural ideal of a “good father” impact his children’s health?

“We must take fatherhood as multi-dimensional and embedded in complex family systems where many people cooperate to care for children.”

To answer this question, we started by talking with Bondongo men and women about what men’s roles are in the family, their responsibilities as fathers, and about what makes children healthy in general. We then took people’s responses to these informal interviews and designed a task in which participating fathers ranked each other on the qualities that their culture attributed to “good fathers.” With these data we build a sort of local scale of fathering quality.

For the Bondongo, good fathers needed to fish, grow gardens, hunt, and travel to bring back clothes to give to their children. Additionally, they said good fathers would also attend to the proper social education of their children, and teach their children to work for the family and not cause trouble with others in the community; they would also care for sick children. Men strongly agreed with how their peers ranked in terms of these qualities, suggesting we were tapping into a shared cultural understanding of “good fathering.”

How culturally-defined fathering quality affects children’s health

We also measured the participating fathers’ children’s health using standard measurements like Body-Mass Index and triceps skinfold thickness, which indicates percentage body fat. These are important indicators of children’s health in this environment, where food shortages can occur during childhood and infectious disease can hinder children’s development.

What we found surprised us. Everyone we spoke to emphasized how important it was that men provide resources like food and clothes to their family. The participating men were also very clear about which of their peers were better hunters, fishermen, etc. However, it was the fathers who were known to keep close track of their children’s social development and sacrifice other activities to care for them when they are sick that had children in the best health.

“This emphasis on fathers as teachers is quite different from the emphasis we in the West place on men as caregivers of infants and playmates of young children.”

In other words, while being a good provider was a culturally valued aspect of fatherhood, it did not contribute to children’s health as much as hands-on care. We think that those fathers who are known as good providers—hunters, fishers, and businessmen—bring status to the family, which has other benefits beyond the food they might bring in. For example, they might have larger social networks.

These findings show that we must take fatherhood as multi-dimensional and embedded in complex family systems where many people cooperate to care for children.

A society defines what a “good father” should be

As we begin to look at our comparative data from the BaYaka, we already see dramatic differences in concepts of “good fathers” that fit with culture-specific values. For example, the BaYaka think good fathers welcome others into the community and share well with them—not their own families specifically. This relates to their traditional subsistence strategy as mobile forest foragers who emphasize sharing and depend on wide-ranging social networks for consistent access to resources.

The BaYaka also mentioned that good fathers teach their children to “walk in the forest.” This is very consistent with their identity as forest foragers. What was interesting to me is that both the Bondongo and the BaYaka said good fathers teach their children. In the first case it was social education, whereas in the latter case they emphasized their ecological education.

“Our research has opened up many new questions and emphasized the importance of looking at fatherhood as entwined in family-systems which are organized by larger cultural, political, and economic forces.”

This emphasis on fathers as teachers is quite different from the emphasis we in the West place on men as caregivers of infants and playmates of young children. That fathers might play a unique role in their children’s cultural learning is an important take-away from our research so far that I am pursuing further.

So far, our research has opened up many new questions and emphasized the importance of looking at fatherhood as entwined in family-systems which are organized by larger cultural, political, and economic forces.

Men’s fathering style also may play a role in determining variation in children’s health. We urge other researchers and policy makers to consider these facts and not to assume a one-size-fits-all view of fatherhood.

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