“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
– Umberto Eco
Pheromones are compounds that are not detected with the usual scent detectors in our noses – they are below the normal scent threshold. They have been known for decades as playing huge roles in animals in particular, to either attract or repulse the one detecting the chemical, and are used in sexual attraction or repulsion, as well as for safety or survival reasons. For humans, studies continue to reveal just how large a role they play, not just in sexual development, but in our social and behavioral development as well. Given the recent Father’s Day, let’s focus on what this research shows regarding the role of the Father in this invisible world of pheromones.
At least two major studies have revealed the incredible influence pheromones from adult males play in sexual development of young girls who spend a lot of time with them. To reveal this, they looked at cases where the girl’s home was disrupted in early childhood (parents were separated or divorced) and the stable adult male left. They found that she started to menstruate about a year earlier than her peers. The level of risky sexual behavior of girls was also found to be significantly influenced by pheromones from fathers or their surrogates, in that girls who grew up with a high-quality father—one who invested more time and worked on building a healthy relationship—showed the lowest level of risky sexual behavior. They found that the consistent physical presence of a father was key, buts his behavior in their presence was also key.
What about the impact of the Father’s pheromones on his sons? Researchers Ellis and Campen believe that exposure to the Father’s pheromones “enhance a competitive urge, and spur sons to achieve more when they grow up and leave the family.”
A recent McGill University study looked at a group of men and women who had been part of a study at Yale University in the 1950s, when they were children. When comparing the childhoods of those adults that were considered empathetic versus those that were unempathetic, one factor stood out from all the others—how much time their fathers spent with them. A study lead by California State University also found that sons who have fond memories of their fathers are better able to handle the day-to-day stresses that occur in adulthood.
A team at the University of Toronto used an MRI machine to assess children’s reactions to their parents' faces. Mothers' faces elicited increased activity in several areas of the brain, including areas associated with face processing. The faces of the Fathers, in contrast, elicited activity in an area of the brain associated with feelings of affection. I describe children as strings of a musical instrument: When the strings are anchored on both ends —both mother and father—the full beauty of the instrument can come through.
It is clear to me that these studies show that invisible pheromones and interlocking Father-Daughter and Father-Son social frameworks significantly impact the expression of the genes that are responsible for positive behavior and the ability to overcome difficult life circumstances, from childhood into adulthood. This helps explain why kids that grow up in fatherless homes make up near 85% of those kids that are homeless, runaways, and incarcerated—its not due to inadequate parenting from the single mother, nor resulting lower economic bracket, as much as it is due simply to the physical absence of a positive father figure.
Mark K. Murphy is a child behavioral psychologist and executive director of Mid-Columbia Parenting.