There is a tendency today to speak of ‘parents’ or ‘carers’ rather than ‘mothers’ or ‘fathers’. People often say that the most important thing in raising children is to give them lots of love, something that all parents can do, regardless of whether they are a mother or a father. However, there are also many ways that mothers and fathers can bring unique strengths to their relationships with their children. In real people’s lives, you can see these contributions, and they have been measured by social scientists. Fathers—just like mothers—always matter.
How Do Fathers Fit In?
This fact sheet is based on the findings of social science, which is primarily concerned with what works best on average. Many individuals will be striving to make the best of a difficult situation and social science does not seek to diminish the importance or sincerity of their efforts. In an open society, however, the role of social science is to help us all to learn from the experience of others and to discover the best way forward.
Two Heads are Better Than One
Richness of Care
A child who has both a mother and a father benefits from an increased richness of care. In other words, children with both a mother and a father can benefit from more caring, as well as a variety of caring styles.
Bridges to the World
Through their fathers and mothers, children have access to a vast network including grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends of the family, work colleagues, community organisations, faith communities, and even personal histories. Fathers and mothers provide ‘bridges’ to all these aspects of the outside world, providing more experiences for children as well as practical opportunities such as job possibilities.
Mothers Benefit from Fathers’ Support
If a mother can count on her children’s father to help with keeping the house clean and in good repair, caring for the children, paying the bills, and planning for the future, she probably will be a happier, more effective parent. The support a mother receives from her child’s father can even help her be more competent and sensitive when feeding her baby. Mothers seem to gain the most security when they are married and know the father is committed to a lifelong relationship to her and their child.1
Today, most families rely upon the incomes of both mothers and fathers. However, fathers still provide the lion’s share of income. Fathers are either the sole earners or the main earners in two-thirds of two-parent households. Moreover, fathers’ earnings are uniquely linked to many positive results for children, even when mothers’ earnings are taken into consideration.2
It often is useful, as well as accurate, to generalise about average differences between men and women. Whether these differences are due more to inborn biological chemistry, or social pressures, or some combination of the two, is much debated.
It is generally agreed that men and women should no longer be regarded as ‘opposites’. The important thing to remember is that mothers and fathers often bring different strengths and styles to their parenting roles. These roles complement each other, meaning that they are not interchangeable and are each necessary for healthy childrearing.
From the book Fatherhood, by Ross Parke
1 Pleck, J.H., Working Wives and Family Well-Being, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1984; Durrett, M.E., Otaki, M. & Richards, P., ‘Attachment and the mother’s perception of support from the father’, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 7, 1984, pp. 167-176; Goldberg, W.A. & Easterbrook, M.A., ‘The role of marital quality in toddler development’, Developmental Psychology, 20, 1984, pp. 504-514; Cummings, E.M. & Watson O’Reilly, A., ‘Fathers in family context: Effects of marital quality on child adjustment’, in Lamb, M.E. (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 3rd ed., New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997; Parke, R.D., Power, T.G. & Gottman, J., ‘Conceptualizing and quantifying influence patterns in the family triad’, in Lamb, M.E., Suomi, S.J. & Stephenson, G.R., (eds.), Social Interaction Analysis: Methodological Issues, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979, pp. 231-252.
2 Burghes, L., Clarke, L. & Cronin, N., Fathers and Fatherhood in Britain, London: Family Policy Studies Centre, 1997, pp 46-48; Amato, P., ‘More than money?: Men’s contributions to their children’s lives’, in Booth, A. & Crouter, N. (eds.), Men in Families: When do They Get Involved? What Difference Does it Make?, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1998, pp. 241-278.
3 Parke, R.D., Fatherhood, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, p 63. The evidence indicates that fathers are more boisterous than mothers in their play with daughters as well as sons.
In the past, psychologists studying the development of children focused almost exclusively on children’s relationships with their mothers. Today, they have come to agree that fathers play a unique and crucial role in nurturing and guiding children’s development. Many experts now believe that fathers can be just as nurturing and sensitive with their babies as mothers.4 As their children grow, fathers take on added roles of guiding their children’s intellectual and social development. Even when a father is ‘just playing’ with his children, he is nurturing their development.
How Fathers Influence
Children As They Grow
4 Pruett, K., The Nurturing Father, New York: Warner Books, 1987.
Fathers and Babies
Babies need predictability and security, which they get when their mother and father respond consistently, promptly, and appropriately to their cries, smiles and other signals. As a baby develops a relationship with his or her mother and father, he comes to prefer them to other adults, in a process known as attachment. Psychologists agree that babies with secure attachments to their parents have better chances to develop into happy, successful, and well-adjusted children and adults.5 Mothers tend to be relied upon more than fathers for the comfort and security components of attachment, primarily because they are usually the infant’s main caregiver.6 Babies also form attachments to their fathers, who tend to be just as responsive to their babies’ bids for attention as mothers.7 When fathers spend more time with their babies, they get to know exactly what each of their baby’s signals mean. This familiarity allows fathers to respond sensitively, meaning that they know when their baby is hungry rather than when he just wants a change of scenery.8
The effects of attachment on children are broad and long-lasting. For example, one study found that primary school children scored higher on tests of empathy—the ability to see a situation from another person’s viewpoint—if they had secure attachments to their fathers during infancy. These children were able to recognize how other children felt and took steps to make them feel better.9
Both mothers and fathers encourage their babies to investigate the world, manipulate objects, and explore physical relationships.10 However, mothers and fathers have different styles of relating. Mothers tend to speak soothingly and softly in repetitive rhythms to their infants and snugly hold them. Fathers tend to provide more verbal and physical stimulation, by patting their babies gently and communicating to them with sharp bursts of sound. As babies grow older, many come to prefer playing with their fathers who provide unpredictable, stimulating, and exciting interaction.11 This stimulation is important because it fosters healthy development of the baby’s brain and can have lasting effects on children’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. Infants with involved fathers tend to score higher on tests of thinking skills and brain development. 12
Both the mother and the father are important to an infant’s development in special ways. For example, in one study, baby boys whose fathers engaged in physically playful, affectionate and stimulating play during infancy were more popular later as school children. Mothers influenced their sons’ popularity through a different route, by providing verbal stimulation.13
Fathers and Small Children
When babies become toddlers, parents must go beyond nurturing them and begin to address two additional needs: supporting their toddler’s exploration and setting appropriate limits for the child. Through playing with their toddlers, fathers take a special role in achieving these two goals. Children learn from them how to solve problems and how to get along with others.14
Fathers spend a larger proportion of their time playing with their young children than mothers do, and they tend to be more boisterous and active in their play. 15 Most children enjoy this kind of play. Even if their fathers spend less time with them than their mothers, fathers become salient, or meaningful and special, to their children through play.16
When fathers play with their toddlers, they are not just entertaining them. They are providing a safe, yet challenging arena for toddlers to learn how to interact with the world and with others. Through rough-and-tumble play, fathers create obstacles for their children and demand respect for limits and boundaries. At the same time, they challenge their children and encourage them to explore their own strength, their ability to do new things, and their impact on the world around them. Toddlers who must work out for themselves how to achieve goals—such as retrieving a ball that is just out of reach in their father’s hand or wrestling their father to the ground—are practicing important problem-solving skills. In fact, when fathers are good at playing with their young children, these children score higher on tests of thinking and problem-solving skills. 17
Playing with fathers also helps children develop emotional knowledge, so that they can identify their own emotions, acknowledge the emotional experiences of others, and describe the causes of emotions. Toddlers must also learn emotional regulation, the ability to express emotions responsibly and control their behaviour. To understand how much emotional regulation develops during early childhood, one can picture a toddler in the midst of an angry temper tantrum, holding his breath until he gets his way. Contrast this with a four-year-old who feels frustrated that the rain has ruined his plans to play football, yet moves beyond those feelings and engages in a board game with his sister instead. When children understand their emotions and know how to control them, it makes them more popular with other children.18
The father’s influence on emotional development is not limited to play, but also comes through direct teaching and daily interaction. Studies have shown that, when fathers are affectionate and helpful, their children are more likely to get on well with their brothers and sisters.19 When children have fathers who are emotionally involved—that is, they acknowledge their children’s emotions and help them deal with bad emotions—they score higher on tests of ‘emotional intelligence’. Moreover, they tend to have better relationships with other children and behave less aggressively. Fathers’ involvement in their young children’s care can even last well into adulthood.20 Mothers seem to have much less impact in this area of emotional regulation and peer relationships than fathers. It really is fathers who can have a major influence on helping their children build strong social relationships during childhood and later in life.
Fathers of Children at Primary School
Learning to meet challenges
As children reach school age, they begin to grapple with learning more adult-like skills, testing them out in new environments, and dealing with the feelings evoked by successes and failures. A sense of industry, or a belief that he or she can accomplish a goal or master a skill, is important to a child’s developing sense of self-esteem. Fathers seem to be key teachers in this area. As one expert puts it, ‘the quality of the father’s involvement during this period is a crucial factor in determining whether the child develops the confidence and competence to meet new challenges in a positive manner.’21
One reason that fathers have such an influential role at this time is because they tend to challenge their children to try new experiences and to become more independent. Challenged children have more opportunity to develop problem-solving skills. In one study, children whose fathers expected them to handle responsibilities, such as carrying scissors, crossing the street, or taking a bath alone, scored higher in tests of thinking skills.22 Accomplishing tasks at this age is so important, and fathers’ involvement is so crucial, that fathers have a larger influence on their children’s self-esteem at this age than do mothers. 23
By encouraging children to take on new challenges, fathers help them not only to learn new skills, but also to take responsibility for their own actions.24 Fathers with a strong commitment to their family provide a model of responsible behaviour for their children. These children have an internal sense of control, which means that they are more likely to believe that their successes and failures are due to their own efforts rather than due to external factors. These children tend to take more responsibility for their actions and rarely blame others for their mistakes.25
Fathers usually have a positive influence on their children’s sense of industry, competence, and responsibility. However, if a father discourages his children and intrudes on potential learning situations by being too restrictive or imposing his own solutions, he will have a bad influence on his children. Whether this type of paternal behaviour is motivated by a desire to protect his child, by feelings of impatience or frustration, or by his lack of trust in the child, it can hamper children’s development of creativity, motivation, and problem-solving skills, making them less responsible and more dependent.26
Achieving in school
Generally speaking, the more actively involved and interested a father is in his children’s care and education, the more intellectually developed his children are.27 Why should this be the case? One reason is that, when fathers are involved, they tend to provide better economic support for their children. Children with better economic support have access to more educational resources and have better opportunities to learn. For example, in two-parent families, the more the father earns, the better his children do at school, even when mothers’ earnings are taken into consideration.28 Another reason that fathers influence intellectual development is that, when their children are school-aged, fathers spend a good deal of time helping them with studies. This level of commitment has an impact on children’s academic success. In one study, four- and five-year-old boys scored higher in maths tests when fathers encouraged skills like counting and reading.29 In another study, the level of a father’s involvement in
5 Bowlby, J., Attachment and Loss: Vol 1. Attachment, New York: Basic Books, 1969; Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E. & Wall, S., Patterns of Attachment, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1978; De Wolff, M. & van IJzendoorn, M., ‘Sensitivity and attachment: A meta-analysis on parental antecedents of infant attachment’, Child Development, 68, 1997, pp. 571-591; Pederson, D. & Moran, G., ‘Expressions of the attachment relationship outside of the strange situation’, Child Development, 67, 1996, pp. 915-927.
6 Cox, M.J., Owen, M.T., Henderson, V.K. & Margand, N.A., ‘Prediction of infant-father and infant-mother attachment’, Developmental Psychology, 28, pp. 474-483.
7 Lamb, M., Frodi, A., Hwang, C. & Steinberg, J., ‘Mother- and father-infant interactions involving play and holding in traditional and non-traditional Swedish families’, Developmental Psychology, 18, 1982, pp. 215-221; De Wolff van IJzendoorn, ‘Sensitivity and attachment’, Child Development, 1997.
8 Lamb, M.E., ‘The development of father-infant relationships’, in Lamb (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 3rd edition, 1997, pp. 104-120.
9 Biller., H.B., Fathers and Families: Paternal Factors in Child Development, Westport: Auburn, 1993; Biller, H.B. & Trotter, R.J., The Father Factor, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
10 Teti, D.M., Bond, L.A. & Gibbs, E.D., ‘Mothers, fathers, and siblings: A comparison of play styles and their influence upon infant cognitive level’, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 11, 1988, pp. 415-432; Power, T. G., ‘Mother- and father-infant play: A developmental analysis’, Child Development, 56, 1985, pp. 1514-1524; Yogman, M., ‘Games fathers and mothers play with their infants’, Infant Mental Health Journal, 2, 1981, pp. 241-248.
11 Clarke-Stewart, K.A., ‘And Daddy makes three: The father’s impact on mother and young child’, Child Development, 49, 1978, pp. 466-478; Crawley, S.B. & Sherrod, R.B., ‘Parent-infant play during the first year of life’, Infant Behavior and Development, 7, 1984, pp. 65-75; Lamb, M.E., ‘Father-infant and mother-infant interaction in the first year of life’, Child Development, 48, 1977, pp. 167-181; Clarke-Stewart, K.A., ‘The father’s contribution to children’s cognitive and social development in early childhood’, in Pedersen, F.A. (ed.), The Father-Infant Relationship: Observational Studies in a Family Setting, New York: Preaeger, 1980, pp. 111-146.
12 Radin, N., ‘Primary caregiving fathers in intact families’, in Gottfried, A.E. & Gottfried, A.W. (eds.), Redefining Families, New York: Plenum Press, 1994, pp. 11-54.; Radin, N., ‘The influence of fathers upon sons and daughters and implications for school social work’, Social Work in Education, 8, 1986, pp. 77-91; Nugent, J.K., ‘Cultural and psychological influences on the father’s role in infant development’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 1991, pp. 475-585.
13 MacDonald, K. & Parke, R.D., ‘Bridging the gap: Parent-child play interaction and peer interactive competence’, Child Development, 55, 1984, pp. 1265-1277.
14 Parke, R.D. & Buriel, R., ‘Socialization in the family: Ethnic and ecological perspectives’, in Damon, W. & Eisenberg, N. (eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol 3. Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, 5th ed., New York: Wiley, 1998, pp. 463-552.
15 MacDonald & Parke, ‘Bridging the gap’, Child Development, 1984; Collins, W.A. & Russell, G., ‘Mother-child and father-child relationships in middle childhood and adolescence: A developmental analysis’, Developmental Review, 11, 1991, pp. 99-136; Bronstein, P., ‘Difference in mothers’ and fathers’ behaviors toward children: A cross-cultural comparison’, Developmental Psychology, 20, 1984, pp. 995-1003.
16 Lamb, M.E., Frodi, A.M., Hwang, C.P. & Frodi, M., ‘Varying degrees of paternal involvement in infant care: Attitudinal and behavioural correlates’, in Lamb, M.E. (ed.), Nontraditional Families: Parenting and Child Development, Hillsdale: Erlbaum, pp. 117-137.
17 Radin, ‘Primary caregiving fathers in intact families’, 1994; Radin, ‘The influence of fathers’, Social Work in Education, 1986; Nugent, ‘Cultural and psychological influences’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1991.
18 Cassidy, J., Parke, R.D., Butkovsky, L. & Braungart, J., ‘Family-peer connections: The roles of emotional expressiveness within the family and children’s understanding of emotions’, Child Development, 63, 1992, pp. 603-618; Parke, R.D., MacDonald, K.D., Beitel, A. & Bhavnagri, N., ‘The role of the family in the development of peer relationships’, in Peters, R.D. & McMahon, R.J. (eds.), Marriages and Families: Behavioral Treatments and Processes, New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1988.
19 Volling, B. & Belsky, J., ‘The contribution of mother-child and father-child relationships to the quality of sibling interaction: A longitudinal study’, Child Development, 63, 1992, pp. 1209-1222.
20 Gottman, J.M., Katz, L.F. & Hooven, C., Meta-Emotion: How Families Communicate Emotionally, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996; Parke, R.D. & Brott, A.A., Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, pp 6-7; Koestner, R.S., Franz, C.E. & Weinberger, J., ‘The family origins of empathic concern: A 26-year longitudinal study’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 1990, pp. 586-595.
21 Biller, Fathers and Families, 1993.
22 Clarke-Stewart, ‘And Daddy makes three’, Child Development, 1978; Clarke-Stewart, ‘The Father’s contribution’, in Pedersen (ed.), The Father-Infant Relationship, 1980.
23 Amato, P.R., ‘Marital conflict, the parent-child relationship, and child self-esteem’, Family Relations, 35, 1986, pp. 403-410.
24 Biller, H.B. & Solomon, R.S., Child Maltreatment and Paternal Deprivation: A Manifesto for Research, Prevention, and Treatment, Lexington, MA: Lexington, 1986.
25 Radin, ‘Primary caregiving and rolesharing fathers of preschoolers’, in Lamb (ed.), Nontraditional Families, 1982, pp. 173-208; Sagi, A., ‘Antecedents and consequences of various degrees of paternal involvement in childrearing: The Israeli Project’, in Lamb (ed.), Nontraditional Families, 1982.
26 Biller, H.B., ‘Fatherhood: Implications for child and adult development’, in Wolman, B.B. (ed.), Handbook of Developmental Psychology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982, pp. 702-725; Biller & Solomon, Child Maltreatment, 1986.
27 Radin, ‘Primary caregiving fathers’, 1994; Radin, ‘The influence of fathers’, Social Work in Education, 1986; Nugent, ‘Cultural and psychological influences’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1991.
28 Kaplan, H.S., Lancaster, J.B. & Anderson, K.G., ‘Human parental investment and fertility: The life histories of men in Albuquerque’, in Booth & Crouter (eds.), Men in Families, 1998, pp. 55-109.
29 Radin, N., ‘The role of the father in cognitive, academic and intellectual development’, in Lamb, M.E., (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 2nd ed., New York: Wiley, 1981, pp. 379-427.
30 Snarey, J., How Fathers Care for the Next Generation: A Four Decade Study, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993; Radin, ‘Primary caregiving fathers’, 1994; Radin, ‘The influence of fathers’, Social Work in Education, 1986.
31 Biller, Fathers and Families, 1993; Biller & Trotter, The Father Factor, 1994.
32 Snarey, How Fathers Care for the Next Generation, 1993.
33 Barth, J.M. & Parke, R.D., ‘Parent-child relationship influences on children’s transition to school’, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 39, 1992, pp. 173-195.
34 Browne, C.S. & Rife, J.C., ‘Social, personality, and gender differences in at-risk and not-at-risk sixth grade students’, Journal of Early Adolescence, 11, 1991, pp. 482-495; Amato, P.R. & Booth, A., A Generation at Risk: Growing up in an Era of Family Upheaval, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997; Franz, C.E., McClelland, D. & Weinberger, J., ‘Childhood antecedents of conventional social accomplishment in midlife adults: A 36-year prospective study’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 1991, pp. 586-595; Snarey, How Fathers Care for the Next Generation, 1993.
35 Reuter, M.W. & Biller, H.B., ‘Perceived paternal nurturance-availability and personality adjustment among college males’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 40, 1973, pp. 339-342; Biller, H.B., ‘Fatherhood: Implications for child and adult development’, in Wolman (ed.), Handbook of Developmental Psychology, 1982, pp. 702-725; Biller, Fathers and Families, 1993.
36 Barkley, R.A., Hyperactive Children: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment, New York: Guilford, 1981; Margalit, M., ‘Perception of parents’ behavior, familial satisfaction, and sense of coherence in hyperactive children’, Journal of School Psychology, 23, 1985, pp. 355-364.
37 Hoffman, M.L., ‘Father absence and conscience development’, Child Development, 4, 1975, pp. 400-406; Hoffman, M.L., ‘The role of the father in moral internalization’, in Lamb (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 2nd ed., 1981, pp. 359-378; Mischel, W., ‘Father absence and delay of gratification’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62, 1961, pp 116-124.
38 McClelland, D.C., Constantian, C.A., Regalado, D. & Stone, C., ‘Making it to maturity’, Psychology Today, 12, 1978, pp. 42-46; Biller, Fathers and Families, 1993.; Biller & Trotter, The Father Factor, 1994; Block, J., Lives Through Time, Berkeley, CA: Bancroft, 1971; Appleton, W.S., Fathers and Daughters, New York: Doubleday, 1981.
39 Catan, L., Dennison, C. & Coleman, J., Getting Through: Effective Communication in the Teenage Years, London: Trust for the Study of Adolescence & the BT Forum, 1997; O’Brien, M. & Jones, D., ‘Young people’s attitudes to fatherhood’, in Moss, P. (ed.), Father Figures: Fathers in the Families of the 1990s, Children in Scotland, HMSO, 1995; O’Brien, M. & Jones, D., ‘The absence and presence of fathers: Accounts from Children’s diaries,’ in Bjornberg, U. & Kollind, A-K. (eds.), Men’s Family Relations, Gothenburg: University of Goteborg Publications, 1996.
40 Lieberman, M., Doyle, A.B. & Markiewica, D., ‘Developmental patterns in security of attachment to mother and father in late childhood and early adolescence: Associations with peer relations’, Child Development, 70, 1999, pp. 202-213.
41 Amato, P., ‘Father involvement and the self-esteem of children and adolescents’, Australian Journal of Sex, Marriage, and Family, 7, 1986, pp. 6-16.
The Family System
Social scientists often emphasise the role of fathers in the family system, and how their actions affect the entire environment and context in which a child grows. One of the most important ways a father influences that environment is in his interaction with his children’s mother. This is because the relationships which children observe and experience at an early age influence their own relationships later in life. It is also because family relationships are interrelated—the way that mothers and fathers interact affects the mother-child relationship as well as the father-child relationship. Because of this interrelatedness, parents who have a strong and happy relationship have a head-start to being good parents.42
How Fathers Fit Into the Family
42 Cummings, E.M. & O’Reilly, A.W., ‘Fathers in family context: Effects of marital quality on child adjustment’, in Lamb (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 3rd ed., 1997, pp. 49-65; Parke & Buriel, ‘Socialization in the family’, in Damon & Eisenberg (eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 3 Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, 5th ed., 1998, pp. 463-552; Henggeler, S.W., Edwards, J.J., Cohen, R. & Summerville, M. B., ‘Predicting changes in children’s popularity: The role of family relations’, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 12, 1992, pp. 205-218; Isley, S., O’Neil, R. & Parke, R.D., ‘The relations of parental affect and control behavior to children’s classroom acceptance: A concurrent and predictive analysis’, Early Education and Development, 7, 1996, pp. 7-23.
Statistics about children who do not live with their fathers can be grim. On almost every outcome that has been tested, including educational achievement, self-esteem, responsible social behaviour, and adjustment as adults, children do better when they live with both of their parents. Family instability and financial problems do contribute to the poor outcomes for children from broken homes. However, as one scholar who reviewed 28 studies of father absence states: ‘the major disadvantage related to father absence for children is lessened parental attention’.43
Non-resident fathers can face special challenges in contributing positively to their children’s development. Fathers who do not live with their children simply are less available to nurture, guide, and provide for their children. In cases of divorce, some mothers limit the time children have with their fathers. Fathers who were never married are even less likely than divorced fathers to keep in contact with their children. Moreover, the large geographic distances that exist between some children and their fathers make close relationships difficult to maintain. Either parent or both may form new relationships and have children with other people. In many cases, the entire family enjoys a lower standard of living when they live apart.
Despite these disadvantages, non-resident fathers can still make a difference for their children. The most obvious route of influence is by providing adequate financial support. Studies show children whose fathers pay child support do better in school and have fewer behaviour problems.44 Children who feel close to their non-resident fathers also tend to do better. And, when non-resident fathers are able to use their time with their children wisely by helping with homework, setting and enforcing rules, and supervising their children, children can benefit a great deal.45
Married or Cohabiting Fathers
The role of marriage as a foundation for family life has become controversial. More and more people are cohabiting or living together before marriage or as an alternative to marriage. More couples also are having children without marrying. Some people say that marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’ and does not make any difference to the couple or their children. For some couples, this might be the case. However, studies have shown that the majority of cohabiting couples are less committed than married couples, even if they have children. In fact, only 36% of children born to cohabiting couples are likely to live with both their mother and their father for their entire childhood, compared to 70% of children born within marriage46. It is for this reason that many supporters of the father’s role in raising children also support marriage for fathers.47
Good Fathering is Good Parenting
Most children do best when their mothers and fathers engage in what developmental psychologists call authoritative parenting. This style of parenting involves spending time with children, providing emotional support, giving everyday assistance, monitoring children’s behaviour, and providing consistent, fair and proportionate discipline.48 This can be contrasted with permissive parenting, in which parents avoid setting standards and limits, and authoritarian parenting, in which parents are harsh and rigid in their discipline and fail to respect their child’s point of view. Neither of these parenting styles have as positive an influence on children’s development as authoritative parenting.
Authoritative, or ‘good parenting’, may be expressed in different styles. While mothers tend to provide more emotional warmth for their children, fathers provide a strong sense of security. While children usually can depend on their mothers for unconditional love, they often must earn their father’s approval. While mothers soothe their children more often, fathers often provide more stimulation.
All parents—both mothers and fathers—have important roles in rearing their children. Better appreciation of where fathers fit in will lead to happier and more productive children.
43 Shinn, M., ‘Father absence and children’s cognitive development’, Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1978, pp. 295-324.
44 McLanahan, S.S., Seltzer, J.A., Hanson, T.L. & Thomson, E., ‘Child support enforcement and child well-being: Greater security or greater conflict?’, in Garfinkel, I., McLanahan, S.S. & Robins, P.K. (eds.), Child Support and Child Well-Being, Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 1994, pp. 285-316; Graham, J.W., Beller, A.H. & Hernandez, P.M., ‘The effects of child support on education attainment’, in Garfinkel, McLanahan, & Robins (eds.), Child Support, 1994, pp. 317-354; Knox, V.W. & Bane, M.J., ‘Child support and schooling’, in Garfinkel, McLanahan, & Robins (eds.), Child Support, 1994, pp. 285-316; Amato, P. & Gilbreth, J.G., ‘Nonresident fathers and children’s well-being: A meta-analysis’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 1999, pp. 557-573. King, V., ‘Nonresident father involvement and child well-being: Can Dads make a difference?’, Journal of Family Issues, 15, 1994, pp. 78-96.
45 Furstenberg, F.F., Jr. & Cherlin, A.J., Divided Families, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
46 Ermisch, J. & Francesconi, M., ‘Patterns of household and family formation’, in Berthoud, R. & Gershuny, J. (eds.) Seven Years in the Lives of British Families: Evidence on the dynamics of social change from the British Household Panel Survey, London: The Policy Press, 2000.
47 Blankenhorn, D., Fatherless America: Confronting our Most Urgent Social Problem, New York: Basic Books, 1995; Popenoe, D., Life Without Father, New York: Free Press, 1996; Horn, W.F., Father Facts, Lancaster, PA: National Fatherhood Initiative, 1995.
48 Baumrind, D., ‘Authoritarian versus authoritative parental control’, Adolescence, 3, 1968, pp. 255-272; Parke & Buriel, ‘Socialization in the family’, in Damon & Eisenberg (eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 3. Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, 5th ed., 1998, pp. 463-552.