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Irish Times, 27th February, 2007

Yes, fathers do still matter

HEALTH

Padraig O'Morain

That's men for you: The influence of fathers - including non-resident fathers - on everything from their children's eating habits to anti-social behaviour continues to be underlined by research. We live in an era in which we are told that men, in particular, have lost their role as women claim their rightful place in the world of work and in the social arena. Indeed we are told, half jokingly, that the day will come when men will be irrelevant with women giving birth through artificial insemination, cloning or by other means.

Well, I have news for the futurologists: there is more to being a father than planting the seed that leads to the development and birth of a baby. The really important stuff happens afterwards and has nothing to do with insemination or cloning. Take anti-social behaviour for example. The involvement of a father with his children significantly reduces the chance that they will get involved in anti-social behaviour, according to new research from Boston College in the United States. The research focused on the non-resident fathers in poor areas. Not only were the children of those fathers who kept involved less likely to get in trouble with the law - if the children did get into trouble, the fathers increased their involvement to help them to improve their behaviour. This, according to the researchers, is in contrast to the response of better-off couples who often reduce their involvement with their children if the latter get into trouble.

Findings like these are among the reasons for welcoming Carol Coulter's research report last week on the family law courts. In contrast to what we have so often been told, she found that most separating and divorcing couples settle issues of maintenance, access and so on without fighting it out in court. The effect of this, of course, is to facilitate the involvement of the non-resident father with his children. The report found that in almost all cases joint custody is granted though the children remain in their mother's care. Clearly, this is hugely beneficial to the children. Clearly, also, those who have been busily condemning the family law courts as places in which a man cannot get justice have done themselves and us no favours - but that's another story.

All fathers, resident or not, would do well to note another piece of research, again done in the United States, which examined the influence of fathers on their daughters' eating habits. They found, as might be expected, that where a father criticised his daughter's weight and shape, she was more likely to develop an eating disorder such as bulimia.

The most intriguing finding, though, was that fathers who had an excessive concern with their own weight and shape also had a strong influence on their daughters' attitudes. If the father was criticising his own weight and shape then there was a greater chance that the daughter would do the same herself and that she would go on to develop an eating disorder. This does not necessarily mean that it is your fault if your daughter has an eating disorder. Eating disorders have many dynamics. They appear also to represent an exercise in control over oneself or others, for instance. Parents who go overboard in controlling what their children eat may find that they later take control through anorexia.

It's not all down to the parents, I should add, peer pressure plays a part too. Nevertheless, the research does suggest that you need to be careful what you say to your child - before she becomes a teenager - about how she looks and about her weight if you want to boost her chances of avoiding eating disorders later on. As importantly, though, you need to be careful what you say out loud about your own shape and weight. Beating yourself up about it will not help your children. So, it seems that fathers still matter and will go on mattering for as long as there are human beings - whether they live in the family home or elsewhere.

Padraig O'Morain's blog on men's issues, Just Like A Man, is www.justlikeaman.blogspot.com

© 2007 The Irish Times.

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