Sharing care of children within a community buffers children against differences in parenting between families.
In a culture that emphasises social equality and sharing, variations in the quality of parenting in a family – including fathers’ parenting – made less difference to the wellbeing of the children than they did in a more competitive culture nearby, according to a recent study. Sharing care of children in the community appeared to buffer children against differences in parenting between families.
This finding comes from a comparative study of two small-scale societies in the west of the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). Both societies – the BaYaka and Bodongo—live side by side in a single village along the Motaba river. The study looked for correlations between the quality of fathering (as defined by fathers in each community) and children’s energy status (height, weight and body fat).
The BaYaka are egalitarian foragers. They emphasise sharing resources, space and time, and show respect for individual autonomy. A BaYaka “chief” is well-respected but not afforded special privilege. Meanwhile, the Bodongo culture focuses more on relationships within families. Bodongo families can be highly competitive with each other, for example, blaming other families for their misfortunes.
The researchers started by determining what each community considered to be good fatherhood by asking a number of men and women. Good fatherhood in the BaYaka community has four components: (1) acquiring resources / working hard, (2) maintaining marital harmony, (3) welcoming others to the community and sharing with them, and (4) teaching children about the forest. The Bodongo community placed more emphasis on fathers’ responsibility their own families.
The researchers then asked fathers to rate their peers in relation to the identified attributes of good fatherhood. In both communities, they found considerable variation in how fathers were rated.
The researchers found less correlation between fatherhood ratings and child energy status for BaYaka children, suggesting that the quality of individual parenting has less influence when care of children is shared. This finding corresponds with other research among the BaYaka (Aka) in the Central African Republic.
The researchers considered whether there might be a genetic explanation, but no evidence suggests variation in health outcomes is shaped by genetics. Such variation is most likely derived from developmental experiences.
The researchers looked only at children’s physical development, not at social and emotional development. However, when BaYaka fathers were rated lower for marital harmony, children’s height was likely to be lower, suggesting a social and emotional dimension. Father-child attachment is strong in BaYaka fathers, where fathers are active carers. Meanwhile, in the Bodongo community, marital discord predicts increased stress response in children. The role of fathers in social and emotional development merits further investigation.
The BaYaka community is a particularly strong example of the benefits of sharing the care of children, in this case across an entire community.
Header photo from the village. Sarah Pope.
Boyette AH, Lew-Levy S, Sarma MS, Valchy M & Gettler LT (2019), Fatherhood, egalitarianism, and child health in two small-scale societies in the Republic of the Congo, American Journal of Human Biology