Over forty years ago 42,000 pregnant women enrolled in a prospective study of neurologic disorders in children. The women gave birth to 55,000 babies who were continually assessed for the presence of birth defects and other conditions. When the infants were eight months old psychologists put them through a series of cognitive and developmental tests while quietly assessing the affection the mother showed for her child. Testers ranked the mother according to five visible levels of affection: "negative," "occasionally negative," "warm," "caressing" and "extravagant."
When I read about this study in a research report published his summer in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, I had to wonder: If the fathers had brought the infants to the eight-month assessment, would the psychologists have needed a different affection checklist? Instead of "caressing" testers might have needed categories like "stoic" or "completely neutral" or maybe even "kept interrupting the baby's tests to talk about himself and/or sports."
When my first child was born I secretly worried that I would become just another father who couldn't tell his child, "I love you." American fathers have a bad reputation when it comes to telling their children how much they care. Every self-help book and how-to Website about fatherhood seems to include a section on "showing affection." I don't want to disparage the advice -- a lot of it is good, and apparently, it's needed.
To reach askmen.com's fatherhood guide on affection I needed to click past an advertisement for Heineken. It was like the site was telling me I should pour myself a cold one before continuing on. Let's face facts -- many men do become more affectionate under the influence of alcohol. But this just makes the dad guilty of PWI, or, Parenting While Intoxicated. Please don't try this at home.
The askmen.com article recommends that fathers set an "affection quota." It gives an example of how a father might want to show affection three times a week. The anonymous expert who wrote the article warns fathers to be careful in the beginning: three times a week might be too much. The article then takes helpfulness to a new level by suggesting that fathers can keep track of their success on a computer.
Personally, I can't think of a colder, more methodical way to manage something that is supposed to be spontaneous and warm. Here's an even bigger potential problem: When the father's wife or partner finds him sitting at the computer instead of doing something with his child, how many will believe him when he says, "I'm just entering today's hugs onto a spreadsheet."
As much as I'd like to laugh at this advice, when my oldest was born I tried to avoid becoming a stoic father by setting an affection quota. I made myself tell my daughter "I love you" at least three times each day.
While the quota I set sounds reasonable, the way I filled it was stupid. Here are the details: When my first child was born I worked a second-shift job. My wife would leave for work in the morning and for the next several hours I had my ramshackle farmhouse and my infant daughter all to myself. While my daughter happily gurgled in her swing I'd do things like vacuum, put away the breakfast dishes and collect mice from the traps in the basement. Then, when the time came to give my daughter her morning bottle, I'd pick her up, I'd look out the window to make sure that no one was driving through the corn fields to surprise me at my door, and then I'd quickly say, "I-love-you-I-love-you-I-love-you" before cradling her in my arms and plopping the bottle into her mouth.
Floors clean? Check. Sink emptied? Check. Tell my daughter "I love you" three times today? Check-check-check.
Yes, I treated affection like it was a chore. Luckily, my stupid little training camp worked. Today I can comfortably tell any one of my children, "I love you" -- in public, even, to my oldest's dismay.
And it's a good thing I trained myself so well, because parental affection is now scientifically tied to good mental health in adults. Duke University's Dr. Joanna Maselko -- the lead author of that research report published this summer -- used the data collected forty years to see if there were any associations between the level of a mother's affection and an adult's mental health. Long-standing theory suggested that the quality of a caregiver's interaction with a child had an impact lasting into adulthood, but there wasn't any longitudinal data to support it.
Dr. Maselko proved the theory. She tracked down several hundred of the children from the study and measured their emotional functioning as adults. Once she grouped these adults by the level of affection shown by the mother at that eight-month assessment, she found that the children whose mothers were ranked as "caressing" and "extravagant" had significantly lower levels of distress as adults.
What do the rankings from forty years ago mean today? Dr. Maselko is optimistic. "I think it's important to remember the timing of the study," she says. "I imagine that parents in general are a lot more affectionate now to their kids than they were back then. So, what might have been considered over the top then is probably what we consider almost normal now." This means if parents are just warmly affectionate to their kids, the kids are likely to develop into healthy adults.
I can only tell you what is normal in my house. When I drop off my oldest in front of her high school every morning I always quietly tell her, "I love you." If I don't give my son a hug and a kiss when he goes to bed he asks, "Uh, Dad? Forgetting something?" And I can often trick my youngest into talking in her sleep. When I ask, "I love you more than?" she won't even open her eyes as she answers, "Mashed potatoes and steak."
Now the question is: How can we make more fathers comfortable enough to say "I love you" in their sleep?