New Research Shows Value of Fathers to Children, Mothers

New research shows that the well-being of children and mothers is enhanced by father involvement.

The study was conducted by three researchers at Arizona State University, Alyson Shapiro, Judy Krysik and Amy Pennar.  The families they chose to study were those receiving services from the Healthy Families Arizona program.  HFAz is a voluntary program that seeks to identify families that are at risk for a variety of bad child outcomes including child abuse.

Shapiro, Krysik and Pennar studied data from 197 such families to try to learn what impact, if any, father presence and involvement had on children and mothers.  Specifically, when programs like HFAz intervene in family life to try to head off, for example child abuse, to what extent should fathers be included and how?

Now, you might think that had been done before, but the three authors are at pains to let readers know how sparse the data are on the role fathers play in child well-being in predominantly poor families.

Although evidence of the importance of father–child relationships has been well documented over the last three decades (see Lewis & Lamb, 2003), intervention studies have largely failed to include fathers as a major component of intervention models and related research…  [T[he bulk of early intervention services remains primarily directed toward mothers.

So, since fathers have been largely ignored in literature on family intervention, it’s no surprise that the best ways of including fathers in intervention programs is unknown.

This lack of information on fathers in families considered at risk for child abuse makes adequate targeting of fathers in interventions difficult, if not impossible.

The authors summarize some of the research on fathers to date, and it strongly indicts the notion that single-motherhood is “just another lifestyle choice.”  That’s true for even the poorest and least educated single fathers.

Despite variation in the methods used, the literature suggests that many fathers are involved and that positive father involvement is associated with benefits to child development and well-being (see Lewis & Lamb, 2003).

But father-involvement with children is often not up to the dads, but to the mothers.

Research also indicates that father-related family dynamics can both influence father involvement and reflect father contributions to infant development indirectly through the mother.  Mothers appear to act as gatekeepers, either supporting or thwarting father involvement in intact as well as nonintact families (McBride et al., 2005), with maternal encouragement predicting parent-reported father involvement.

Given all that, you might have thought that programs that intervene in families to try to build healthier relationships and parenting would have, if not focused on fathers, at least included them.  But you’d have been wrong.

Although fathers have not historically been included as major factors in intervention programs and related research, a recent meta-analysis indicated that father inclusion in parenting training was associated with positive child outcomes…

That’s true of the Healthy Families Arizona program as well.

The literature on Healthy Families America points to the parent–child relationship as a target for intervention services.  However, the primary focus of those services has traditionally been on the mother–child dyad and maternal parental functioning (DuMont et al., 2008).

Stated another way, HFAz and its larger incarnation, Healthy Families America, have been around for decades trying to create healthier parenting.  But they’re just now getting around to considering fathers as part of that effort.

So the authors studied fathers in low-income, at-risk families.  To be considered “at risk,” families have to answer survey questions about various topics such as parent trauma experienced as a child, mental health problems, substance abuse, criminal history, past child abuse, etc.  If a family scored high enough on the survey, they were qualified for admission to HFAz.

The families studied were poorer than most, and, being from Arizona, predominantly Hispanic.  Interestingly, almost exclusively mothers were interviewed.  Fathers were too if they happened to be present when the interviewer was at the family’s home, but there is no documentation of how many fathers participated.

Only 15% of the mothers were married, but 47.2% lived with the father.  Yet another 29.4% said the father had at least some contact with the child.  So in all, about 77% of the fathers had at least some contact with their children.

Comparing families in which fathers had contact with their kids to those in which the fathers didn’t, revealed several benefits associated with father involvement.  Mothers were less likely to be involved with Child Protective Services and more likely to have sought pre-natal care.  Mothers were less likely to be depressed and their families were financially better off.  In fact, the greater the father-involvement, the greater the family income.

So the researchers did further analysis controlling for income levels and found that father involvement still correlated highly with less maternal involvement with CPS.  Likewise, a resident father was significantly correlated with better maternal mental health, specifically lower depression.

Involved fathers tend to lessen a mother’s chance of being a victim of domestic violence.

Specifically, mothers were more likely to report that they were physically abused by a partner if the father was not involved shortly after the baby”s birth (M = 3.81) compared to mothers in families with either involved nonresident fathers (M = 1.35, p = .02, d = 1.12) or resident fathers.

Of course all this is simply correlating father involvement with better maternal and child outcomes.  It says nothing about causality.  It could be argued that those fathers who are involved with their children tend to be better fathers than those who aren’t.  Therefore intervening in families to involve hitherto uninvolved fathers wouldn’t benefit mothers or children.

But the dynamics of how fathers come to be involved or uninvolved in their children’s care strongly suggest the opposite.  Studies on maternal gatekeeping as well as those describing “parenting as a package deal” in which the mother and child make up the “package” (or “dyad”) strongly suggest that greater efforts should be made to involve more fathers in their children’s lives.  

The authors conclude

The current research identified several indicators of maternal
and family well-being that were positively related to the level of father involvement. Thus, child and family functioning could be influenced indirectly through father-related family dynamics as well as through the contributions fathers make as parents.

Once again, research shows the beneficial effects of involving fathers in the lives of their children.  It’s something the academy has known for decades now.  Are state legislatures listening?

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