Positive attention from fathers is associated with successful development of the frontal lobes.

Just read this study, published in 2010 by Kosuke Narita and colleagues from Japan’s Gunma University. In it they investigated the relationships between parenting styles and brain development. The authors recruited a sample of young adults, all of whom completed the Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI), a retrospective questionnaire in which adults describe the behavior of their parents toward them up until age 16. (If you’d like to have a look at the PBI to get a feel for what they were measuring, take a look here.) The PBI has two major factors, that is, subsets of items that tend to be endorsed in the same direction by the same people. One of the factors measures “care”, and includes behavior such as smiling, treating the child warmly, and so on. The other factor measures “overprotection”, which really is just like it sounds. Everyone who completed the questionnaire was also scanned in an MRI scanner, which computed the volume of grey matter in a couple of regions of interest, specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and some other frontal sites.

What the authors found was quite interesting. First, they found that scores on the paternal “care” factor (i.e., scores reflecting loving treatment by the father) correlated positively with grey matter volume in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the right orbitolateral prefrontal cortex. The left DLPFC is important for concentration, planning, and memory, while the other two sites are involved in emotion regulation. On the contrary, there was a negative correlation between paternal “overprotection” and left DLPFC grey matter, meaning that the more overprotective or smothering the fathers were, the less successfully the left DLPFCs of their children developed. Interestingly, there were no correlations between grey matter volume at any site and maternal care or maternal overprotection, although on some other analyses maternal overprotection was also negatively associated with grey matter volume at the left DLPFC. That is, the amount of maternal care the person experienced was generally unrelated to his subsequent grey matter volume in adulthood.

If these findings can be replicated, it will mean that fathers have a particularly important role in shaping the brain development of their children, influencing not only their cognitive capacity, but also their propensity toward things like anxiety and depression.  The way fathers can bring about the most positive results is by being a steady, warm, loving presence in the lives of their children, but at the same time allowing the children to take risks and explore their world. Mothers’ care, it seems, exerts other, apparently unrelated effects, but mothers also need to be careful not to stifle and overprotect their children if they want their children’s frontal lobes to develop well.

All of this highlights the absolutely vital importance of fathers in children’s lives. Nowadays we tend to think of adult “parental figures” as basically interchangeable units. We assume that as long as there is some well-intentioned adult or combination of adults in the home, it doesn’t matter what sex they are, or if they are biologically related to the children. Indeed, this assumption has underlain unprecedented experimentation with different combinations and permutations of adults in the home in the last generation or two, a marked departure from the way families have been structured everywhere, throughout (nearly) all of human history. The Narita study (and other studies as well, like this one) suggests that all of this social experimentation may be ill-advised. Fathers matter. Mothers matter. Children have a right to be raised by both, and to have their parents love them and accept them, while giving them enough space to allow them to learn to be independent. These are the conditions under which their brains will develop the best.

Leave a Reply