Mom and Pop Parenting: Determinism Strikes Again

It may seem strange (given that I am unlikely to ever become a father), but the “science of fatherhood” is a major interest of mine. So I had a lot to say when I recently read Lisa Belkin’s post in the New York Times titled: Why Mothers and Fathers Play Differently.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for There’s quite a bit of research that documents the difference in parenting styles, demonstrating that–in many Western nations, at least–women are more likely to calm and coo while men are more likely to stimulate and play. The Times post discusses an interesting new addition to this literature, a new paper in the journal Biological Psychiatry. The study concerns the levels of oxytocin–a small neuropeptide that has been associated with social bonding–in 160 first-time mothers and fathers. Echoing other findings, the new study shows that over the first six months after having a child, oxytocin levels increase in both men and women.

But the paper also suggests that oxytocin is associated with different behaviors in mothers and fathers. In particular, the researchers discovered that mothers with high levels of substance were more affectionate with their infants. But fathers whose bodies are flooded with oxytocin engaged in more stimulating play with their kids.

The paper is, indeed, interesting and provocative. Which makes it a double shame that the Times coverage is so woefully incomplete. Belkin’s answer for “Why Mothers and Fathers Play Differently” is oxytocin. And…oxytocin. And did I mention oxytocin?  The study, Belkin writes, “suggests a biological basis for the fact that men and women so often relate differently to infant[s] and toddlers.” And the post concludes with the following lines: “A reminder, yet again, that we are essentially a jumble of hormones, enzymes and electrical impulses. Does this help explain the different parenting styles at your house?”

We are indeed a collection of biochemical impulses, but we’re biological impulses that participate in a larger culture–whose presence is utterly ignored in the Times post. There is, in fact, a rich literature on how social roles and expectations might influence gender differences in parenting styles.

Though gender equity in parenting roles has improved greatly in the last few decades, women still do the majority of the caregiving. There are a variety of reasons for this. First of all, any breastfeeding mom is going to be providing a lot of the earliest child care, simply because of her biology. The more of this work she does, the more comfortable she gets with it, creating a snowball effect that can turn her into the primary caregiver. Some mothers actively “gatekeep,” preferring to take charge of child care themselves (perhaps because they doubt their partners’ competence). Or, logistics can necessitate the gender differential. If it’s easier for Mom than Dad to get parental leave from work–this is nearly always the case–guess who spends their days caring for the little one? 

Whatever the reason, by the time a baby gets handed over to his or her father, much of the critical caregiving–the feeding, the changing, the bathing–has often already been done. And so Dad is free to use his time to play. As I wrote in a Scientific American Mind article last year:

“One reason for fathers’ particular playfulness may lie in the traditional division of labor in American families. In her study, [Lyn Craig, a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Social Policy Research Center] found that 51 percent of mothers’ child care time—but only 31 percent of fathers’—is spent performing physical and emotional care such as feeding, bathing, cuddling and soothing. If mothers are doing the bulk of the caretaking, fathers have the luxury of goofing off with Junior. … In fact, a second reason for fathers’ emphasis on play may stem from the fact that they tend to be around their children less than mothers are. “If you had a young child and only had an hour to be with that child, you might tend to use that time to have a lot of fun, to play a lot,” says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a psychologist at New York University.

“Cultural comparisons support the notion that the division of labor drives some of this parenting behavior. In cultures in which men take on more child care—such as the Aka foragers of Central Africa, a society in which fathers are equal partners in caregiving—they spend less of their time in play. And in the U.S., cultural norms regarding masculinity may also contribute, making some men more comfortable rolling a truck on the floor than rocking their infants to sleep.”

Though definitive answers remain elusive, there is reason to believe that culture plays at least some role in creating gender-based differences in parenting styles. The Times post suggests that the reason men and women have different parenting behaviors is because oxytocin affects the sexes differently. Maybe that’s true. But it’s equally possible  that culture is at the root of the intriguing oxytocin finding.

For instance, maybe the connection works like this: In both parents, higher levels of oxytocin increase feelings of attachment toward a child. Perhaps more intense feelings of attachment prompt each parent to engage in more behaviors that he or she views as central to his or her parenting role, spurring women to exhibit more affection and men to get involved in more stimulating play.

The authors consider a similar possibility in the paper, writing:

“It is also possible that OT [oxytocin] is related to the type of behaviors from which mothers and fathers derive the most reward. Infants tend to prefer fathers as playmates when they are positive and choose mothers for comfort when distressed. The infant’s preference may be of high reward value for the parent, and thus, although mothers and fathers displayed similar levels of affectionate and stimulatory play, OT may be linked to the behaviors each parent found the most rewarding.”

I’m not saying that a Times blog post needs to survey the entire history of a field of inquiry. But when the original research article and the press release–the press release!–include caveats about whether oxytocin is truly the cause of parenting differences, surely the paper of record can manage a sentence or two along the same lines. It’s far too early to say that gender differences in parenting are all due to some wily little peptide.

Reference: Gordon, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J., & Feldman, R. (2010). Oxytocin and the Development of Parenting in Humans Biological Psychiatry, 68 (4), 377-382 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.02.005

Image: From above paper.

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21 Responses to Mom and Pop Parenting: Determinism Strikes Again

  1. That was an excellent post.

    Here’s an easy easy way to test these hypotheses: look at the behavior of men who are by necessity primary caregivers – aka stay at home dads.

    I can tell you that in the two months I spent at home with my newborn son a whole new world of caretaking styles opened up to me. If you’re the one doing the feeding and soothing during the day, naturally, your interactions are going to be more “maternal.”

    I think it’s as you say – it’s as if we’ve simply labeled whatever it is that moms and dads do naturally – primarily because of gender roles and, beyond that, the fact that mom is the food source – as male or female style behavior. I mean of course: because that’s a tautology.

  2. Hormones modify and modulate, but there are far more factors involved, as you note in this excellent piece. As they queried parenting styles, around our house, I–the mother–am far more prone to playing with and riling up my children than cooing over them. Is it because of oxytocin? Do I have a male-gendered brain? Did I inherit the “playful” genotype? If it is that “wily little peptide,” what was the order of events: the tendency to coo, get a trust response, and thus make a lot of that peptide, or the tendency to make a lot of that peptide, coo, and get a trust response?

    I can think of few science-related stories I’ve read in the MSM media lately that don’t leave me bemused at their superficiality. The headlines are the most troubling–many people rarely read beyond them, I think.

  3. becca says:

    Alternatively, look at MOMs who are by necessity not always in primary caretaker role.
    My little guy usually spends a month with me and a month with Dada. *early* on, while little guy was mostly with me and breastfeeding, I was VERY cuddly and Dada was less engaged. As the little guy got bigger and could hold his head up and then smile, Dada started very gentle ‘rough housing’ (if gentle rough housing isn’t an oxymoron). It looked like so much fun I started to adopt it. Now, my son is older and walking and has been spending much more time with Dada then me. I find I spend a LOT more of my time rough housing and playing ‘pillow fight’ and ‘knock the object off of mama’s head’ and ‘tickle attack’, and not very much cuddling (cuddling was mostly given up because my very active little guy seems to not care much for it anymore- makes me kinda sad). And now Dada spends significantly more time with more relaxed physical contact (not active cuddling, but less energetic than ‘play’- more like rhythmic patting on the back and whatnot).
    I had thought this was just each of us having a (culturally influenced) intuitive parenting style, and learning from the other one. But it could very well ALSO relate to who is giving primary care (the fact that we alternate causes both of us to adopt both modes of primary interaction at different times).
    In any event, I think the oxytocin release is an effect more than a cause (although it also sounds like a positive-feedback-cycle is at work). At first, I got an ENORMOUS amount of OT from cuddling during breastfeeding, but later I’d place good money on the bet that my OT spiked based on whatever made the little guy smile.

  4. Emily Anthes says:

    That’s a good point–one I neglected to mention in the post. Kyle Pruett, at the Yale Child Study Center, has done some long-term longitudinal studies of families in which the fathers are the primary caregivers. And indeed, these dads engage in more stereotypically “maternal” interaction styles.

  5. Anne says:

    Great analysis of a fascinating topic. Along the lines of what Christopher was saying above, it would also be informative to look at the behavior of single and same-sex parents. I suspect there is plenty of both cooing and rough-housing going on in all these households.

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  7. What a thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing!

    I even notice differences in how my dad and my mom interact with their grandkids (my niece and nephew). My mom is all about the caregiving and my dad is all about playing, and I’m guessing this isn’t all due to oxytocin. I think there’s a little bit of that dichotomy in how my husband and I interact with them, too.

  8. Khalil A. says:

    From an evolutionary pov, doesn’t it make more sense to see the men being more playful. Playing with the kids encourage their creativity and develops their skills–possibly those skills necessary for survival (hunting, etc) later on in life.

    It’s quite beautiful to think of it this way: mums take care of the child for the present while dads take care for the future.

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  10. This is far more interesting than the original NYT post; thanks for making lemonade out of lemons! Adding to Anne’s suggestion of looking at single and same-sex parents, have there been similar studies done with adoptive parents? I imagine that parental behaviors in such cases would be just as widely variable as for biological parents, but I’d also be curious about oxytocin levels, especially in adoptive mothers.

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  14. Hannah Egan says:

    I enjoyed the article but objected to the language that what father does is “more stimulating” than what mother does. I think what each parent does regardless of gender is equaly stimulating, just “differently” stimulating.

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  19. First-rate content and actually assists with learning the subject matter better.

  20. You can also put a chatbox on your blog for more interactivity among readers.;:”.*

  21. Patrick says:

    My wife has trouble putting our daughter to bed, because she makes her alert and excited (both of them love to talk).

    On the other hand, I did the standard “throw the child up in the air” thing, which always has the kid squealing with delight, and the mother writhing with anxiety.

    Nice blog, by the way.