Fathers under stress: Does it sometimes “make sense” to be a bad father?

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman; http://www.kerrieleishman.com/Illustration: Kerrie Leishman; http://www.kerrieleishman.com/In this post, I will posit that growing up in chaotic and unpredictable environments leads to the development of more negative parental attitudes and behaviors in men. I will present supportive evidence for this hypothesis from two samples, and discuss the evolutionary logic behind negative male parental behavior.

For most people parenting is a source of meaning, purpose, and joy. Yes, there is also some anxiety and frustration, but overall parents love their children, invest in them, and are involved in their lives. A nice thought, isn’t it? Reality, however, is more complicated. Many parents are neglectful, indifferent, and even hostile toward their children. This is especially true under stressful conditions, when money is short, life is chaotic, and the future seems uncertain. Any psychologist would tell you that stress impairs functioning, nothing new about that, but is this all that is going on? After all, throughout our evolutionary history parental investment has been essential for the survival of children. If so, shouldn’t parental behavior be more resilient? Come on evolution! Or, could it be that there is a deeper, evolutionary logic behind bad parenting? This seems like a strange proposition, unless you look at parenting within the larger context of human reproduction.

Parenting is a reproductive effort

Human reproduction involves the execution of several tasks. The first thing one must do is find a partner and have children. Doing so requires the expenditure of mating effort, which means spending time, energy, and resources on finding a mate and convincing him/her to have sex with you that would result in pregnancy. Once children are born, it is usually a good idea to take care of them. This requires the expenditure of parenting effort, which means spending time, energy, and resources on existing children so they have a better chance to survive and eventually reproduce themselves. The problem is time, energy, and resources are limited. Investing more in creating children means less can be invested in caring for existing children, and vice-versa. What’s more, the optimal balance between creating new children (mating) and caring for existing children (parenting) depends on the situation.

The reproductive value of male parenting depends on the environmental context

Think of an ancestral human who has been living in the same shelter with the same family members for all of his/her life. In such a stable environment, parental investment is very likely to pay off. Hence, this individual is likely to achieve the best reproductive outcome by having few children and investing heavily in them (investing more in parenting). Now think of the same individual in a highly chaotic environment, moving from shelter to shelter with an ever changing group of people. In such an unpredictable environment, investing heavily in a small number of children can have catastrophic results if conditions take a turn for the worse and these children die unexpectedly. This individual’s resources would be better spent having more children to increase the chance that some will survive and reproduce (investing more in mating). This is especially true if this individual is a man. Biologically speaking, men are more able to restrict their parental investment than women. They do not have to carry the child to term or nurse it after it’s born. Men can also produce a lot of children quickly, by mating with multiple women simultaneously. Because of these biological facts, ancestral men were better able to divert resources from parenting to mating in unpredictable environments to gain a reproductive advantage.

According to life history theory1, evolution has equipped our ancestors with developmental mechanisms that responded to environmental cues, such as the level of unpredictability, by calibrating physiological and psychological development to maximize reproductive success. When exposed to predictable environments, our male ancestors developed traits that favored parenting (e.g., parental sensitivity). When exposed to unpredictable environments, they developed traits that favored mating (e.g., sexual promiscuity). If this account is true, we should see traces of these mechanisms in modern men, even though the costs and benefits of male parental behavior are somewhat different now.

The development of a father

Based on this logic, my colleagues and I tested the hypothesis that men who were exposed to unpredictability early in life would grow up to be less investing and sensitive parents2. Our sample included 112 parents who were followed from before birth into their late 30s as part of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation3. The early childhood environment of these parents was assessed and rated in real time. As expected, we found that men who experienced a lot a changes and transitions in their first four years of life (moved around a lot, their parents changed jobs frequently, people were moving in and out of their home on a regular basis) reported more hostility and less warmth and involvement toward their children in a parenting interview they completed at age 32. Moreover, these men were rated by independent observers as less sensitive and supportive parents in videotaped lab interactions with their children. In contrast, women’s parental attitudes and behavior were not affected by early exposure to unpredictability. We have also replicated these findings with a separate sample of 435 parents who reported about their early childhood.

In additional analyses we identified how early unpredictability might be carried forward to affect parenting in adulthood. The frequent changes in these individuals’ childhood environments apparently suppressed the quality of care they received from their own parents. This, in turn, caused them to develop negative expectations about the availability of supportive others in their adult lives (also called insecure attachment), which lowered their ability to provide supportive care to their own children.

Parting words

So does it make sense to be a bad father? Of course not. Fathers are highly important to the social, psychological, and physiological well being of their children. It is quite possible, however, that the tendency of some men to father poorly reflects a hardwired response to certain poor early life environments, a response shaped over years of evolution by the reproductive challenges faced by our ancestors. Understanding this does not absolve bad fathers of responsibility for their behavior. It could, however, help us understand it better, and perhaps find ways to break this cycle.


1 Kaplan, H., & Gangestad, S. W. (2005). Life history theory and evolutionary psychology. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 68-95). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

2 Szepsenwol, O., Simpson, J. A., Griskevicius, V., & Raby, K. L. (2015). The effect of unpredictable early childhood environments on parenting in adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 1045-1067. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000032

3 Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E. A., & Collins, W. A. (2005). The development of the person: The Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York, NY: Guilford Press.