Members of the Aka tribe in the Central African Republic often take care of their young children while the mothers are hunting. They calm, clean and play with their babies, and spend more time holding them than parents in any other society. Their devotion earned them the title of "the best parents in the world" from online commentators – which is a bit ironic, since the Aka are strictly egalitarian and avoid rankings.
Yet it shows how dramatically the broader view of being a "good father" has changed over time.
Today, many parents are celebrated for being sensitive, caring and hands-on. A growing body of research is transforming our understanding of how they can shape the lives of their children from the outset by challenging conventional ideas of parenting and gender.
This is surprising, since until the 1970s, the role of parents in the development of their children was not much studied. His most important work was seen as economic support for the mother, who in turn would be the child's emotional anchor.
"There was a lot of focus on how relationships with mothers were very important, and there was very little reflection on other social relationships," says Michael Lamb, a psychologist at Cambridge University who studies parents since the 1970s. "The most obvious of them was the parent-child relationship – a relationship that was seen as more important as children grow, but has always been viewed as secondary to the mother-child relationship. "
Or as Professor Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who is doing a series of studies on new parents and family relationships, says: "Half the parents are parents, but 99% of paternity surveys focus on mothers."
Now, new research is showing that the social world of children is much richer and more complex than previously thought.
It is not just parents who have put themselves in the spotlight. Grandparents, same-sex parents, foster parents, and single parents have also helped researchers understand what really makes a child thrive – and is not just a caregiver.
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"Part of the argument I've been trying to do over the past 45 years is that, actually, no, there are several important factors," says Lamb. "We want to recognize the differences in their importance, but we also need to recognize that – to cite this cliché – a village is needed, and that there are many important relationships that shape the development of children."
A number of recent studies show how flexible parental roles can be. Ruth Feldman, a professor of psychology at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, found that just like mothers, parents experience a hormonal boost when they take care of their babies, which helps in the process of union. When parents are the primary caregivers, their brains adapt to the task.
And emotional involvement is important. Babies with emotionally engaged parents show better mental development as babies and are less likely to have behavioral problems later on compared to babies whose parents behave in a more distanced fashion. Older children also benefit. Those whose fathers or fathers are more emotionally supportive tend to be more satisfied with life and have a better relationship with teachers and other children.
"The factors that lead to the formation of relationships are exactly the same for both mother and father," says Lamb. "It really boils down to emotional availability, recognizing the child's needs by responding to them, providing the comfort and support the child needs."
Previous research has found that mothers and fathers tend to interact differently with young children: mothers bond more with gentle care, while parents usually bond by playing. But this, says Lamb, has less to do with gender and more with the child care division.
Studies with same-sex couples and housewife parents have shown that regardless of gender, it is the parents who work during the day and return home at night, who tend to play wilder games, such as picking up the baby and swinging them around . The father who cares for the baby all day probably interacts more calmly with them.
In heterosexual couples, the father who takes most of the care during the day is still often the mother for a number of social and economic reasons.
One of them is parental leave. Although all OECD countries, except the US, offer paid maternity leave nationwide and publicly funded, only half of them offer paid paternity leave that lasts for at least two months. Meanwhile, given the persistence of wage differentials between men and women, it often makes economic sense for new mothers, not parents, to stay at home. Across the OECD, women earn 13.8% less than men (based on average earnings).
This helps explain why parental leave alone is not the answer. In the United Kingdom, where parental leave is available, only 2% of couples accept it.
In fact, even among the highly praised Aka, women do most childcare. They hunt and feed themselves with their babies snuggling against them in a sling. But no one has yet declared them the best mothers in the world.
But involving more parents early on can bring many benefits, the research showed. And playing, regardless of being quiet or noisy, is particularly beneficial.
"Playing is the language of childhood: it's the way children exploit the world, it's how they build relationships with other children," says Paul Ramchandani, who studies education, development and learning at Cambridge University. He and his team observed their parents playing with their babies in the first months of life, then followed the children's development. They found that early parent-baby interactions are far more important than previously thought.
Babies whose parents were more active and engaged during play had fewer behavioral difficulties at the age of one compared to those with more distant or separated parents. They also did better on cognitive tests in two, for example, on their ability to recognize forms.
These results were independent of the mother's relationship with the child.
Ramchandani cautions that the results should not be interpreted as a clear causal link. Instead of directly affecting the development of their children, the behavior of distant parents may, for example, be a sign of other problems in the family. Still, he sees the study as an incentive to play with his child long before they can crawl and talk: "Some parents do not do this when babies are young because they are not sure what to do, or are not sure if they are doing the right things. "Of course, new mothers may feel equally hesitant.
But Ramchandani says it can be as simple as sitting on his lap, making eye contact and observing what they like.
"It's the involvement involved that's the most important thing, because you're going to get better if you practice." It's not something that comes naturally to everyone, some people are really good at it, but most people need to practice, "he says.
In many ways, parents are more involved than ever. There are parent study groups, baby-only massage classes for parents, and extremely popular online videos of daddy and baby dance sets.
Visit a typical group of babies during the week, even in a relatively progressive neighborhood in London, and the picture changes quickly. Yes, there are usually one or two parents around and they are just as competent as the mothers. But most parents still seem to fall for women. Around the world, women spend up to 10 times more time on unpaid care – including child care – than men.
"I think we're at a crossroads in terms of how we see parents," says Anna Machin, an anthropologist and author of The Life of Dad, a book about modern parents.
Machin argues that while most parents want to be more active at home, the workplace has not really adapted to it. "That's where the tension is for men at the moment: between the need and the desire to care, and also the need to continue providing," she says.
Given the financial pressures facing many families, Machin fears that there will actually be a reversal for more traditional roles: "If you are a parent now, if you want to get involved, you need to be a pioneer in the workplace. You have to go against all this culture of "men returning to work." You have to be the one to go: "Actually, I want to assert my rights."
"And that's a very difficult thing to do."
A more equal division can have many long-term benefits. Researchers led by sociologists Helen Norman and Colette Fagan of the University of Manchester found that parents were more likely to get involved when the child was three years old if they shared the nursery even when the child was nine months old. In Scotland, a study of more than 2,500 families showed that parent-child support relationships are as important as mother-child relationships for the well-being of children. In another sign of change, the study included paternal figures, such as stepfathers whose impact was often marginalized.
"People have taken note and are helping to maintain or raise the profile of parents in a series of policy discussions," says Paul Bradshaw, director of the Scottish Center for Social Research, which conducted the study on behalf of the Scottish government.
Maybe one day a male chief executive with a baby sling will be as common a sight as a group of Aka men taking their babies back from the hunt. Meanwhile, parents can console themselves with the fact that there are countless ways to be a good parent.
"One of the points we've learned is that there is no ideal parent model. There is no recipe for what the parent needs to do or what kind of behavior he needs to emulate," says Lamb.
Ultimately, he says, it's about being emotionally available and meeting the needs of the child. "Different people do this in different ways. There has been a lot of talk about "Do parents need to do this in a masculine way?" And the answer is no, they do not need it.
"They need to do this in a way that makes sense to them, that is authentic, that allows them to be fully and consistently engaged in the relationship with their children."
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