I have some things to say and some stats to share below the article.
A paternal contribution may not be as essential as we think.
By Pamela Paul
Even the most recession-walloped and otherwise diminished man can take pride in his essential role as father. Fathers, Barack Obama intoned in a 2008 Father’s Day speech, are “critical” to the foundation of each family. “They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.”
None of this would seem particularly controversial. Nor would the ominous statistics Obama reeled off about kids who grow up without Dad: five times as likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times as likely to drop out of school, and 20 times as likely to wind up in prison. Obama was citing a commonly accepted and constantly updated body of research. The effectively fatherless Obama is clearly a freakish outlier. As for the rest of the fatherless: insufficiently breast-fed, apt to develop attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, unable to form secure bonds, lacking self-esteem, accident prone, asthmatic, and fat.
Liberal feminist moms—eager for the participation of our emotionally evolved, enthusiastically diaper-bag-toting mates in the grueling round of dual-career child rearing—are keen to back the data. Dads, we tell our husbands, are essential influences on children, the source of unique benefits.
There’s only one problem: none of this is proven. In the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at New York University, and Timothy Biblarz, a demographer from the University of Southern California, consolidated the available data on the role of gender in child rearing. As Stacey and Biblarz point out, our ideas of what dads do and provide are based primarily on contrasts between married-couple parents and single-female parents: an apples-to-oranges exercise that conflates gender, sexual orientation, marital status, and biogenetic relationships in ways that a true comparison of parent gender—one that compared married gay-male couples or married lesbian couples to married heterosexuals, or single fathers to single mothers—would not. Most of the data fail to distinguish between a father and the income a father provides, or between the presence of a father and the presence of a second parent, regardless of gender.
Drawing on reliable comparative studies, you could say this: single moms tend to be more involved, set more rules, communicate better, and feel closer to their children than single dads. They have less difficulty monitoring their children’s whereabouts, friendships, and school progress. Their children do better on standardized tests and have higher grades, and teenagers of single moms are actually less likely to engage in delinquent behavior or substance abuse than those of single dads. Go, Murphy Brown.
The quality of parenting, Biblarz and Stacey say, is what really matters, not gender. But the real challenge to our notion of the “essential” father might well be the lesbian mom. On average, lesbian parents spend more time with their children than fathers do. They rate disputes with their children as less frequent than do hetero couples, and describe co-parenting more compatibly and with greater satisfaction. Their kids perceive their parents to be more available and dependable than do the children of heteros. They also discuss more emotional issues with their parents. They have fewer behavioral problems, and show more interest in and try harder at school.
According to Stacey and Biblarz, “Two women who chose to become parents together seemed to provide a double dose of a middle-class ‘feminine’ approach to parenting.” And, they conclude, “based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man, or at least than a woman and man with a traditional division of family labor.”
Ah, there’s the rub. All howling to the contrary, most heterosexual men and women like that traditional division. Sticking to “gendered” parenting roles offers a seductive affirmation. Fathers, roughhouse all you want. But we, gatekeeper moms, are in charge of the rest. We could give you detailed instruction, and you still couldn’t possibly do it as well. “Even women who want their husbands to help more with the kids don’t want to give up their traditional authority,” says Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. In addition to our pragmatic embrace of these roles, we still live in a culture with a deeply embedded notion of what a father is, beyond just another set of hands, and men, women, and children cling to it.
The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there’s nothing objectively essential about his contribution. The good news is, we’ve gotten used to him.
These results are counter to the government's own findings about the importance of fathers in family structures and raising children. I'm really not buying into this crap. I grew up without a father and I know firsthand how destructive it can be to a child. I got into drugs, alcohol, vandalism, and so on - which never would have happened had my father not died.
These stats are posted on the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, a government initiative:
- Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors such as drug use, truancy, and criminal activity compared to children who have uninvolved fathers.
- Studies on parent-child relationships and child wellbeing show that father love is an important factor in predicting the social, emotional, and cognitive development and functioning of children and young adults.
- 24 million children (34 percent) live absent their biological father.
- Nearly 20 million children (27 percent) live in single-parent homes.
- 43 percent of first marriages dissolve within fifteen years; about 60 percent of divorcing couples have children; and approximately one million children each year experience the divorce of their parents.
- Fathers who live with their children are more likely to have a close, enduring relationship with their children than those who do not.
- Compared to children born within marriage, children born to cohabiting parents are three times as likely to experience father absence, and children born to unmarried, non-cohabiting parents are four times as likely to live in a father-absent home.
- About 40 percent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their father at all during the past year; 26 percent of absent fathers live in a different state than their children; and 50 percent of children living absent their father have never set foot in their father's home.
- Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.
- From 1995 to 2000, the proportion of children living in single-parent homes slightly declined, while the proportion of children living with two married parents remained stable.
What Fathers Contribute to Child Development
Fathers who are active in their child’s life will have a tremendous effect on their child’s development— both cognitively and socially. Having the experience of two involved parents adds variety and dimension to the child’s experience of the world. Researchers stress that parents must be actively and positively involved in their child’s life to contribute to the healthy development of their child. Let’s take a look at what scientists believe that fathers add to their child’s development in a unique and important way.
Fathers and social development. Fathers who tended to hold their babies facing out reported that they did this because “it’s easier for the baby to see the world.” In over 20 years of studying fathers, Dr. Ross Parke states that men have a tendency to allow their infants more freedom to explore, which appears to support the development of independence in their children. Fathers who actively play with their children appear to reinforce the notion of emotional self-control in their children and help their children learn to recognize the emotional cues of others.
Young children whose fathers were involved in their lives tended to make better, longer-lasting friendships across their lifespan. Children raised with responsible fathers tended to get along better with their peers, be academically successful, stay in school longer, use drugs and alcohol less frequently, and didn’t become pregnant or get someone else pregnant.
Fathers enjoy practical ways of playing. Men tend to do more practical, educational activities with their children rather than talking about what they are doing with their children. Fathers like to expand their child’s horizons by playing with toys in non-traditional ways. A father might take a cup and place it on his head or throw a block rather than stack it. Fathers are much more comfortable with physical play at any age but especially as their children grow older.
Fathers and cognitive development. Infants raised in father-absent homes did less reaching, grasping and following of objects, and playing with new toys and objects in their environment. Researchers have determined that active fathers have children who score higher on tests of verbal skills, in problem-solving tasks, and in social situations. Fathers who played peek-a-boo and tossed the ball with their children had children who scored higher on cognitive tests than did children whose fathers were non-active or absent. Some researchers believe that active father involvement has a positive effect on their child’s math skills.
Prepared by Linda D. Ladd, Ph.D., Family Development Specialist, Texas Cooperative Extension, October 2000.
Brott, Armin. (1999). Not Just Another Pair of Hands. In W. Horn, D. Blankenhorn, and M. Pearlstein (Eds.), The Fatherhood Movement: A Call to Action (pp 36-42). New York: Lexington Books.
Ross Parke, Center for Family Studies at the University of California, Riverside.