All About Fathers (page 4)
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.
Some conclusions about the debate
Both points of view agree that what fathers typically do is quite important for their children. Both also agree that much of fathering is learned and that fathers need more opportunities to parent their children. But whether fathering skills are learned or biologically based, it appears that responsible parenting figures other than the biological father are capable of learning and enacting "father-typical" behaviors with children.
An open-minded review of the existing literature suggests that "parenting roles are interchangeable, that neither mothers nor fathers are unique or essential."3 What the research suggests is that children do best when they have a consistent, caring relationship with at least one responsible adult and that "optimal outcomes for children are associated with a particular cluster of parental behaviors, including showing affection, being responsive to children's needs, encouraging children to do well, giving everyday assistance, providing supervision, exercising noncoercive disci- pline and serving as role models of posi- tive behaviors."6
The degree of warm and nurturing father involvement may simply be a reliable marker of the presence or absence of a number of variables that have a powerful impact on children's lives: economic well- being, access to educational resources within and outside the family, encourage- ment to achieve, an involved mother, and absence of destructive conflict between the parents.
Barriers to positive father-child relationships Marital disruption
Separation, divorce and other non- coha- biting arrangements bring particular cha- llenges to fathers as they struggle to main- tain relationships with their children. However, with a commitment to coopera- tive co-parenting, fathers in such arrange- ments can be positively involved with their children.
Work time versus family time Case Example
Jeff, 32, and Sarah 31, are the parents of three year-old Janet. Jeff, an executive, works ten to twelve hours a day. When he returns home, Sarah, an artist who cut her work back to be at home full time, wants to immediately hand Janet over to Jeff so that she can get some work done. Although Jeff wants to assume his parenting responsibility, he says he needs at least an hour to "unwind." Sarah feels Jeff is unappreciative of the sacrifice she made in her career to stay home with Janet. Jeff sees Sarah as unappreciative of how hard he works o support the family.
Probably the single most powerful variable affecting fathers' contact with children in this country is the ever- increasing time demands of the work place. Over the past twenty years, across socioeconomic classes, time devoted to work has increased markedly.
Even though surveys frequently find that a substantial percentage of working persons state they would settle for less salary in order to have more time with family, few feel secure enough in their jobs to initiate such a shift, or even to take advantage of flextime or other systems designed to give workers more control over time. This may be par- ticularly true for men, who may feel that they will be seen as uncommitted to their job or as unmasculine. Contrary to stereotype, educational level and econo- mic status are not positively correlated with the amount of time fathers spend with their children - wealthy fathers (typically in demanding professional and business occupations) are among the least involved fathers. Rather, fathers in working class families in which parents work different shifts contribute more to child rearing, although still notably less than their female partners. Clearly, changes are necessary in the culture and temporal expectations of the workplace in order for men to take fuller part in childrearing.7
Gendered beliefs about men and parenting
As involved fathers know, parenting is much more than throwing a ball around or helping with homework: changing diapers, middle-of-the-night feedings and soothing, bathing, preparing meals and cleaning up are all less picturesque but central child rear- ing tasks. Some research suggests that wives' devaluing of their husbands' ability to parent may discourage men from parenting.8 It is probably more accurate to view woman's devaluing comments as part of a vicious spiral, affected by factors beyond the control of individuals or couples. With men still outnumbering women in the work- place, or on average working longer hours than female spouses, they have less daily practice in parenting and so feel (and may actually be) less competent.
Unwillingness to take guidance
While some men may withdraw from parenting, feeling unprepared or fearful of being told they are incompetent, others may jump in but actively or passively ref- use influence from their wives. This unwi- llingness to accept influence may in turn be linked to beliefs about gender and power.
Robert, a salesman who works long hours, and Jessica, a full-time mother returning to school, frequently fight about putting the children to bed. Jessica typically puts them to bed and knows how to get them to sleep by 8 P.M. On the one evening per week that Robert comes home early to take over, he typically allows them to stay up later. This infuriates Jessica, who is faced the next day with tired, irritable children to get ready for school. Robert feels Jessica is too rigid and is trying to interfere with his bonding with the children.
Marital conflict- communication patterns
One of the most powerful determinants of men's involvement with their chil- dren is marital satisfaction. As the level of marital conflict increases, father involvement decreases. Although mari- tal conflict may arise from a variety of sources, communication patterns - particularly around problems - are among the most predictive of marital distress. In contrast to other predictive variables that cannot be changed (such as history of one's own parents divorcing), communication patterns are dynamic behaviors and so are amenable to preventive education and intervention.
Increasing father involvement: Some recommendations
In much of the emerging fatherhood literature recommendations are made to fathers about how to reassert their roles and rights in the home, or to mothers about how to back off and be less critical of their spouses, but rarely is advice given to the couple as a unit. Here are some ideas for fathers and mothers that build on the notion that their coordinated efforts and teamwork will best insure a greater, more consis- tent role for fathers:
- Talk about your parenting beliefs. Discuss what each of you believes important in all aspects of parenting: how best to encourage your children's talents and achievements; how best to discipline; how best to handle fears; which routines are important to keep as strictly as possible and which can be applied with flexibility; how to handle problems between siblings - in short, everything that goes into raising a child.
- Be aware that each of your sets of be- liefs may stem from emotionally- charged experiences in your respective upbringings. Give each other a chance to explore fully the sources of your beliefs before coming to final decisions about how to parent your children.
- Decide how you will divide parenting responsibilities. Strive for fairness. Con- sider parenting responsibilities within the larger picture of all activities that contribute to the well-being of the family, including paid employment outside the home, and be realistic about time constraints imposed by work. Recognize that for a variety of reasons (e.g., breastfeeding, one spouse's great- er earning power), the mother may assume greater child care responsibili- ties during certain phases of the child's life, and plan for the time in the future when the husband can assume more responsibilities if the mother wishes to return to work. Especially (but not only) for men: be aware of when your ability to think clearly about what are truly fair divisions gets clouded by stereotypical beliefs about what it means to be a man or a woman.
- The idea that women who've been the primary caretakers should simply adjust (read "lower") their standards of child care when men decide they are ready to try out being more involved fathers is unfair and unrealistic. Rather, we suggest that men who've not been much involved in day-to- day child care should ask lots of respectful questions of their partners to learn how and why they developed their routines with the kids, what cues to notice in the children about what they need, and what seems to work best. From that base, newly involved fathers can start to experiment with changes and refinements, but keep the dialogue going so that parenting remains a coordinated effort.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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