All About Fathers (page 2)
Are fathers important to their children? At first glance the question seems to call for a simple affirmative response: of course they are! Yet this question, or rather a significantly different variant of it - are fathers essential to their children's well-being and psychological growth - is one of the most contested and politicized topics in psychology, family studies and mental heath today. In this issue of the NYU Child Study Center Letter, we address this and other questions, the answers to which may hold more practical importance to fathers, mothers and children. Essential or not, what role can fathers play in their children's lives? What interferes with or facilitates their involvement? And in families with two parents, what role does the quality of the marital rela- tionship (or its equivalent) play in the involvement of fathers with their children?
Are fathers essential or (just) important? Two views
The essentialist point of view A number of social scientists argue that fathers play an essential, irreplaceable role in the lives of their children and that this role is biologically based. Several social scientists,1,2 drawing heavily on ethology and evolutionary psychology, believe that research has established that males and females are different in a variety of ways that affect parenting. For instance, according to this point of view, because men are physically stronger, more aggressive and more inclined to take risks than women, they are essential as the main protectors of their families from physical threat. It is also argued that, across human history, men have been the key provi- ders of resources for their families, although these authors acknowledge the growing trend of dual-earner families and increasing income parity for wo- men and men.
The essential-father proponents quote research to support the assertion that the following functions are best per- formed by biological fathers married to mothers and living in the home:
Fathers are said to provide role models for their sons to learn how to be men; girls are said to need fathers in order to know how to relate to men.
Fathers are viewed as better able than mothers to constrain and correct boys headed towards violence and other anti-social behaviors.
Fathers are seen as better able to teach sons and daughters assertiveness and achievement orientation, and provide better formative experiences for daughters to develop the capacity for heterosexual intimacy, trust and even femininity.
Fathers are also said to play differently. They are more physical; they challenge and foster independence more than mothers, whose play is characterized as constrained by worries of potential danger. Young children are said to prefer their fathers' form of play.
In summary, proponents of the essential- father point of view see the parenting contributions of mothers and fathers as linked to their sex, with mothers generally emphasizing connection, safety, and care, and fathers emphasizing autonomy, action, risk-taking and following rules. It is further argued that heterosexual mar- riage is the most natural and propitious social arrangement within which children can reap the full benefits of their biological fathers' unique contributions. They be- lieve that single, never-married mothers (by choice or circumstance) divorced or wido- wed mothers, heterosexuals living together but not married, homosexual couples with children, other same-sex parenting dyads (such as mother-grandmother), and blended families (with one biological and one step-parent) are inferior versions of family and potentially destructive develop- mental contexts for children. In response to research which has shown that children with stepparents are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems than are children from intact families, the essential-father proponents conclude that stepfathers are ineffective because they can never form the bond that biological fathers experience with their children.
An alternative point of view: fathers are important but not essential
Critics of the essential-father position who hold what we dub the "diverse families view,"3,4 believe that the existence and impact of supposed sex-based parenting differences between mothers and fathers are not supported by research and that conclusions about the impact of father absence misinterpret the existing data. They make the following points:
A meta-analysis of 171 studies comparing mothers' to fathers' parenting differences found few significant differences.5
The research cited by the essentialists can be interpreted in a number of ways, and some of the differences observed may be due to causes other than the lack of the presence of the biological father. As an example, a finding that children achieve more when fathers are more involved in general and when they participate more in educational activities (such as homework), could be due to fathers' positive influence, or to fathers getting more involved when children show talent and ability in the first place, or to having two parents - and therefore less stress on the parents and more parenting resources to go around for children, or to more financial security which results in greater access to educa- tional resources. Similarly the finding that many young children may prefer playing with their fathers rather than their mothers may be due to different play styles or to children seeing their fathers less, so they are a more novel stimulus.
In general, the proponents of this more diverse view on parenting argue that the essentialist viewpoint often ignores or minimizes the potential impact of more important underlying variables - in particular, that the many negative effects on children attributed to fatherlessness, especially for families at the lower end of the economic spectrum, may have much more to do with the fact that such children suffer more severe poverty than those with two parents. In addition it is unclear whe- ther it is mothers' or fathers' involvement that is critical to children, as some research shows that when fathers are more invol- ved, so are mothers. One recent study indicated that in two parent families, greater father involvement was related to fewer behavior problems in their children, irrespective of the level of mother invol- vement.6However, because mother-father parenting dyads were not compared to other two-parent arrangements (homo- sexual couples, grandparent/mother dyads), the study does not establish whether it is fathers per se that are criti- cal, or whether other parent figures could have as important an impact.
The proponents of the diverse family perspective also believe that stepfathers are unfairly blamed for children's stresses and difficulties that pre-date their arrival. Marital conflict and divorce, and parti- cularly for many households headed by woman, a significant drop in socio-econo- mic status, relocation and loss of friends and community, change of school, all may take a toll on children long before step- fathers enter the family.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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