24 September 1999

Very weird

by Kate Melville

Well the latest breaking scientific news is that the relationship between a fathers and daughters may impact on when girls enter puberty!

Of course this report comes had to come from America - Vanderbilt University to be precise. According to the Vanderbilt research team girls with close, supportive relationships with their parents tend to develop later, while girls distant relationships with their parents develop at an earlier age.

It's perhaps ironic that the lead researcher Bruce Ellis, has now moved from Vanderbilt to the University of Canterbury in New Zealand . This move may help to broaden his original research from humans to animals as he will be working on a campus located in the heart of NZ's 'lamb belt' where sheep outnumbering humans by a factor of 10 to 1?

Anyway back to reality; the study looked at 173 girls and their families from the time the girls were in pre-kindergarten until they were in the seventh grade (roughly the first year of secondary schooling).

Girls with close, positive relationships with their parents during the first five years of life tended to experience relatively late puberty, compared to girls who had more distant parental relationships.

However more specifically, the research indicated that the quality of fathers' involvement with daughters was the most important feature of the early family environment in relation to the timing of the daughters' puberty.

Girls entering puberty later generally had fathers who were active care-givers (who were supportive to the girls' mothers and had positive relationships with their mothers). But it's the fathers' involvement, rather than the mothers', which seems to be the key to the age of the girls' development. Girls in the study who were raised in father-absent homes or dysfunctional father-present homes experienced relatively early pubertal timing.

The hypothesis is that girls have evolved to experience early socialization, with their "antennae" tuned to the fathers' role in the family and that girls may unconsciously adjust their timing of puberty based on their fathers' behavior.

Researches presented several theories as to why this may occur:

One biological explanation is that girls whose fathers are not present in the home may be exposed to other adult males - stepfathers or their mothers' boyfriends - and that exposure to pheromones produced by unrelated adult males accelerates female pubertal development. The flip side of that theory is that girls who live with their biological fathers in a positive environment are exposed to his pheromones and are inhibited from puberty, perhaps as a natural incest avoidance mechanism.

Girls who live with their fathers but have a cold or distant relationship with them would not be exposed to their fathers' pheromones as much as girls who have more interaction with their fathers, therefore causing the girls in the distant relationship to reach puberty earlier.

Perhaps most notable, the researchers say, is the important role fathers seem to play in their daughters' development, given that the quality of mothering is generally more closely associated with how children turn out than is the quality of fathering.