Secrets of the Superdads

19 February 2019

3.2 MINS

The title of this article, “Secrets of the Superdads”, is taken from the ABC Science Show screened several years ago. It is even more relevant today than the day it was made. You know that the fatherhood revolution is well underway when the ABC screens a great feature on fatherhood like this one. Very uncharacteristic but most welcome!

The good news is that you can see most of it on the web at the ABC link. Download the Mp4 File at the same place. You can even watch it below on YouTube!

I include a transcript of some of the dialogue to whet your appetite for ‘Dad Data’.

The Testosterone Factor for Fathers

Professor Peter Grey’s interest in testosterone was sparked, naturally enough, by a bird. A dark eyed Junco bird, to be precise.

Prof Peter Grey
What was so striking about some of these birds is that you find that male testosterone levels change across the seasons as male behaviour changes. That testosterone levels are highest, when males are competing with each other, when they’re courting females. But once it’s time to start caring for offspring, you saw their testosterone levels drop.

So the scientists tried a little test. They injected testosterone into happily nesting junco dads who promptly jumped off the nest, abandoned the kids, and started singing for a new mate. And it’s not just Juncos most north American migratory birds drop the big T, Testosterone when they become dads.

Prof Peter Grey
It does support the idea that testosterone has to get out the way a bit for nurturing to emerge. And that got me thinking, this would be fascinating to look at similar issues in people.

Now, there are over 20 studies covering eight countries and several thousand people, all carefully calibrated and corrected for age so there’s no escaping the truth. Testosterone is highest in single men it drops in some men upon marriage. And it’s definitely down in dads.

Prof Peter Grey
Some men might think this is bad news. Does this make me less of a man? No. Nature’s given us this capacity for males to care for their offspring in ways we just don’t see in other apes. That’s something to celebrate……….

And the importance of the “Father –Daughter Bond”

Prof Bruce Ellis
There seems to be something special about the role of fathers in girls’ lives in regulating how quickly they grow up, when they actually go through puberty, and particularly the risk for early sexual activity and teen pregnancy.

Huh? The idea dads could influence the timing of puberty harks back to fascinating experiment in the 1960’s. A male college student was asked to interview some 12 year old girls. Unbenownst to the girls, observers were recording how close they got, how much eye contact they made – how flirty they were.

Prof Bruce Ellis
Girls from father-absent homes sat closer to the male interviewer, talked to him more, and made more eye contact, compared to girls from father-present homes. Since then the studies have piled up. Dad departing before age five seems to accelerate puberty.

Dr Jonica Newby
So if you just take the unique contribution of the absent father, how much earlier do the girls come into puberty?

Prof Bruce Ellis
Well if you just consider father absence, it tends to be about a six—month acceleration.

Dr Jonica Newby

To understand why – we need to visit our animal friends again. These are prairie dogs. Like us, they practice co-parenting. But if dad is removed, his daughters hit puberty early – and even earlier if a step dad is introduced.

Prof Bruce Ellis
Many animal studies, there are pheromonal effects where exposure to an unrelated adult male has the effect of accelerating puberty in girls.

Bruce speculates there’s something similar going on in people.

Prof Bruce Ellis
When fathers are absent or low-investing, it may make adaptive sense for girls to grow up more quickly and not put a lot of energy into finding long-term relationships with a high-investing mate, who may not be available.

But even if this theory needs a bit more testing – other impacts of absent dads are rock solid – you only have to look at the numbers. Here at Pennsylvania State University, massive studies going back decades are hunted down and roped together – by the Master of the Dad Data, Professor Paul Amato.

Prof Paul Amato
Children who experience the divorce of their parents, don’t do as well on average across a wide range of outcomes. Having a greater risk of doing poorly in school, a greater risk of developing conduct or behaviour problems, and depression. Now the children who grew up with two continuously married parents, have overall about a ten percent risk. For divorced families, the risk is twenty percent. So it means there’s a doubling of the risk.


You are important to your children. Even the scientists believe it. Make sure you have fun with them. Enjoy!!!

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