This week saw much discussion of a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. The Fatherhood Institute believes that dads should be able to stay in hospital after a baby’s birth, to support mother and child, and that they should be encouraged to do so. It seems sensible, especially when the mum would need food and drink fetching, or help getting comfortable, or someone to hold the baby while she sleeps (etc. etc.) which the staff can’t do because they are too busy.
However, here I’m interested in the (also bleedin’ obvious) claim that ‘fathers who are highly involved with their babies from the start are more likely to remain so for life’ (BBC). A finding like this is as obvious as ‘people who stand outside offices on their breaks more likely to buy cigarettes’. It’s a correlation that may well have its original cause in whether someone wants to be a father or interested in being a good parent. It’s a self-selecting group, so causal relationships are hard to find.
What tends to happen when studying this kind of relationship is that the researchers control for indicators of good/bad parenting (e.g. class, age, poverty, marital status) to put it crudely. But what you can’t do is control for ‘wanting to be highly involved in child rearing’, unless you go for a randomised controlled trial, ordering some to stay in hospital and stopping others from getting in (not really ethical).
This, of course, is a problem of much quantitative social science. We can’t do ‘experiments’ keeping everything equal except a causal variable. Life’s too complicated… this doesn’t mean it’s not valid, but we should use other techniques (life course analysis, biography and other qualitative methods) to test and refine these theories.