The time a dad spends with his children is a particularly strong predictor of how empathetic a child will become, according to a commission of experts who wrote a proposal asking President Obama to create a White House Council on Boys and Men. The group, which Farrell helped assemble, compiled research showing infants with dads living at home were months ahead in personal and social development. Children who lack contact with fathers are more likely to be treated for emotional or behavioral problems. Girls with absent or indifferent fathers are more prone to hyperactivity. If dad is around, girls are less likely to become pregnant as teens.
As early as 1993, studies showed that dads also influenced whether their sons became teenage fathers. A Temple University study found no boys born to teen mothers became teen fathers if they had close relationships with their biological fathers, compared to 15 percent of those who didn’t have that closeness.
“None of this implies men are better as dads than women are as moms,” Farrell and the commission emphasized. Children need both.
But dad’s place is not always secure. The commission report said, “The U.S. has done a better job of integrating women into the workplace than in integrating men into the family — especially into the lives of children in the non-intact family. We have valued men as wallets more than as dads.” The result is “moms feeling deprived of resources and dads feeling deprived of purpose and children feeling deprived of the full range of parenting input.”
One after another
Few have studied the relationship between children and sequential parent figures, said Paula Fomby, associate research scientist at the University of Michigan. She said research suggests someone not biologically related is less likely to invest in a child for various hypothetical reasons, including unclear parental roles. Sometimes, father figures compete or are stretched thin by obligations to children fathered with other women.
The more transitions a child endures, the worse off he or she typically is, Cherlin said.
In Ott’s case, not all the siblings growing up with him experienced the family’s transitions the same way. Some of his younger half-siblings were actually living with both biological parents while he was dealing with a stepfather. It was unequal and complicated as stepfathers treated him and his siblings each differently. He saw friends in intact families enjoy greater consistency, something he wants for his own future children.
“There is a great deal of evidence that children from single-parent homes have worse outcomes on both academic and economic measures than children from two-parent families,” wrote scholar Elaine C. Kamarck and Third Way president Jonathan Cowan in the introduction to "Wayward Sons," a report produced for Washington think tank Third Way. “There is a vast inequality of both financial resources and parental time and attention between one- and two-parent families.”
The report also said absent fathers particularly impact the psychosocial and academic development of boys.
University of California-Berkeley’s Philip A. Cowan and his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan, study parent couples. Their research shows a couple’s relationship is vital to their children, even if they are no longer intimate partners — whether they’re divorced, separated or never married.
“The relationship between two biological parents determines a lot about how fathers are going to be involved, and that determines a lot how kids are going to be,” he said.
If parents get along, their children tend to be more psychologically and emotionally healthy. Moms who feel their child’s father backs them up are better mothers through all stages of the child’s development, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — “more responsive, affectionate, and confident with their infants; more self-controlled in dealing with defiant toddlers; and better confidants for teenagers seeking advice and emotional support.”
Ott’s father lived too far away to be available physically or emotionally. Burgos “knew” his father through a single letter and a phone call. Neither of them gained the benefits the studies attribute to an involved, interactive dad.
Washington takes note
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