By NICK CHILES
As the father of three well-rounded, academically and athletically successful children, I have always been aware that fathers played a crucial role in the development, confidence and achievements of their children. But reading a fascinating story in yesterday’s New York Times, I was shocked to discover the extent to which dads have a role in the people that their children become.
As noted in the Times story entitled “Why Fathers Really Matter,” it has long been the mother who has been harangued by modern society for her choices while pregnant—she can’t drink, smoke, undergo stress, exercise too much, gain too much weight, eat the wrong foods, because they all could damage her developing fetus. Poor mothers have always been subject to the great societal wrath of friends, neighbors, casual acquaintances if she violated any of the conventional wisdom about what a mother can and cannot do. But according to the Times, choices that fathers make even long before contributing sperm to the egg also have a huge impact on that child.
“Genes matter, and culture matters, and how fathers behave matters, too,” writes Judith Shulevitz, science editor for The New Republic.
This study of the way our lives influence our offspring is called “epigenetics” and it has far-reaching implications for all of us. Not only does the behavior, lifestyle and diet of men affect their children, it even moves along into their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This is some frightening stuff, discovering that decisions I made as a teenager and even a pre-teen will be felt decades down the line in the lives of my children’s children.
“Doctors have been telling men for years that smoking, drinking and recreational drugs can lower the quality of their sperm,” Shulevitz writes. “What doctors should probably add is that the health of the unborn children can be affected by what and how much men eat; the toxins they absorb; the traumas they endure; their poverty or powerlessness; and their age at the time of conception. In other words, what a man needs to know is that his life experience leaves biological traces on his children. Even more astonishingly, those children may pass those traces along to their children.”
In the piece Shulevitz presents some powerful studies to back up her claims. In one study of a northern Swedish town called Overkalix that was cut off from the rest of the world until the advent of the airplane—when there were bad harvests the children starved and when there were good harvests the children stuffed themselves—researchers went back to 1799 and found that when boys ate badly between ages 9 and 12, their sons had lower than normal rates of heart disease as adults. When boys ate too much during that period, their grandsons had higher rates of diabetes. Their grandsons!
We have already heard from medical science recently about how older fathers increase the risk of children being autistic—and some scientists have speculated that the rise in autism may be connected to the rise in older fathers.
Then there was the disturbing mice study. Researchers put field mouse into a cage with big, nasty breeding mice and let the breeders attack the smaller mice for five minutes a day, then they would separate them by a screen that the breeders would claw at, trying to get to the field mice. They did this for 10 straight days, creating a great deal of stress in the field mouse. When these stressed-out, depressed field mice were bred with normal females, their offspring would grow up to exhibit the same stressed-out, depressed characteristics as their dads. Remarkably, when they killed the depressed mice and impregnated normal females with their sperm, the offspring were largely normal. Researchers don’t understand exactly why, but the implications are astounding.
In the African American community, where so many of our black men are underemployed and stressed-out, how much do these environmental factors affect the development and life chances of black children?
These are disturbing and difficult questions to consider. But it’s clear that when choosing a potential mate, women have to look deep into the dude’s history and behavior to understand exactly what she’s getting—and how it all might impact their offspring.
1. On Black Fathers, the African American Image and MyBrownBaby Etiquette
2. An Exclusive Interview with NBA Veteran Etan Thomas About His New Book “Fatherhood”
3. Dear Daddy: New Documentary Tells the Story Of Fatherlessness Among Daughters
4. Ice Cream Promises: A Son Yearns For True Love From & Connection With His Father
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.