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Who are the world’s best dads?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to fatherhood. What is “best” is different in different contexts and for different individuals.

The African hunter-gatherer community, the Aka, have been called “The World’s Best Dads” by the UK based Fatherhood Institute. But is it so simple?

Barry Hewlett’s groundbreaking work since the mid-1970’s demonstrated that Aka men are unique in the degree to which they invest in their infants. The most famous of Hewlett’s published figures is his observation that Aka men spend an average of 22% of their time holding their 1-4 month old infants when in the lango, their temporary forest camps, where they spend much of the year. Additionally, they are available to their infants 63% of the time. Based on his observations and many conversations with men about fathering, Hewlett’s concluded that Aka fathers’ intrinsically enjoyed caring for infants. Men sought out their babies for the emotional satisfaction this gave them.

Hewlett was actually quite clear in his study that there is substantial variation in men’s fathering styles among the Aka, even in his small sample. Not all men were responsive and some did very little holding at all, yet Hewlett found no relationship between men’s fathering styles and the survival of their children. So what is really “best”?

We are currently studying the fisher-farmers, the Mondongo. The Mondongo tend to view fathers as providers, and value highly productive men. The sort of direct investment that made the Aka the “best dads” to the British is not seen as men’s work in Mondongo culture. To examine if meeting such culturally derived expectations was related to the health of men’s children, we asked men to rank each other’s productivity and then we performed a number of health measurements on the children.

What we found (and let me emphasize the preliminary nature of these results!) is that some of the men who were ranked as very low productivity — did not do much work in their gardens, didn’t fish, didn’t produce palm wine, and didn’t hunt — still had healthy children. These men, however, were highly ranked on different measures of (relatively less valued) direct investment, like willingness to stay home when a child was sick, or a commitment to educate their children. Additionally, those men who were ranked higher as “indirect investors” (providers) and as “direct investors” had the healthiest children according to at least one measure.

What do we take from these preliminary findings? It seems that a diversity of fathering strategies can lead to comparable health outcomes. This perhaps suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fatherhood. What is “best” is perhaps different in different contexts and for different individuals.