On Psychology

Jewish World ReviewNov. 23, 1999 / 14 Kislev, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Out of Home, But Not Out of Children's Lives

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- CAN NON-RESIDENT fathers make a difference in the lives of their children, and if so, how? As more and more children grow up in homes absent their biological fathers -- nearly 24 million and counting -- these are important questions for both policy makers and dads.

Large scale studies of this issue have generally found two things. First, payment of child support makes a difference. Second, the frequency of a non-resident father's visitation does not. Taken together, these two findings have led some to conclude that the only thing that matters when it comes to non-resident fathers is their money.


Well, not so fast. In a recently published meta-analytic review of the empirical literature, noted Pennsylvania State University researcher Paul Amato and his colleague Joan Gilbreth of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln point out that such a conclusion may be based on a false assumption: that frequency of visitation is the most important aspect of a non-resident father's relationship with his children.

Indeed, studies of fathers who live with their children suggest that it is not the amount of time that they spend interacting with their children that matters, but the quality of the overall relationship. Researchers consistently find that children who describe their relationship with their father as close and warm, compared to those who do not, have better psychological and emotional health, and do better over the long-term.

We also know that children whose in-the-home dads engage in "authoritative parenting" -- which means they not only encourage their children but also monitor their behavior and enforce age appropriate limits -- are more likely to avoid high risk behaviors, such as alcohol and illicit drug use, early and promiscuous sexual activity, and delinquency, compared to those children whose fathers do not.

To find out whether the same is true for non-resident fathers and their children, Amato and Gilbreth located 63 studies that looked at not only the amount of time non-resident fathers spent with their children, but also the quality of the father-child relationship and the degree to which the fathers engaged in authoritative parenting. What they found may surprise those who believe that non-resident fathers can't make a difference in the lives of their children.

Consistent with other research, the majority of the studies found that children whose non-resident fathers consistently paid child support were more likely to do well at school and to have fewer behavioral or emotional problems. The majority of studies also found, again consistent with prior research, that the amount of time a non-resident father spent with his children was not associated with better child outcomes.

Had these researchers stopped there, they would have concluded that only money counts. However, when they examined the association between child well-being and the quality of the father-child relationship, a majority of studies also found that children who reported feeling close to their fathers were more likely to succeed in school and were less likely to evidence emotional or behavioral problems.

But the strongest predictor of all -- even stronger than payment of child support -- was the degree to which non-resident fathers engaged in authoritative parenting. Children whose non-resident fathers listened to their problems, gave them advice, provided explanations for rules, monitored their academic performance, helped with their homework, engaged in mutual projects, and disciplined them, were significantly more likely to do well at school and to evidence greater psychological health compared to children whose fathers mostly engaged them in recreational activities, such as going out to dinner, taking them on vacations, and buying them things.

In other words, children whose non-resident fathers acted like, well fathers, did much better than those children whose non-resident fathers behaved more like a playmate, if not Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, other research has found that non-resident fathers are far less likely than in-the-home dads to have a close relationship with their children or to engage in authoritative parenting. One reason for this, as Amato and Gilbreth point out, are constraints inherent in traditional visitation arrangements.

Because their time with their children is often severely limited, many non-resident fathers strive to make sure their children enjoy themselves when they are with them. Consequently, non-resident fathers tend to spend a greater proportion of their time compared to in-the-home dads taking their children to restaurants or movies, and less time helping them with their homework, monitoring their activities, and setting appropriate limits.

One solution recommended by Amato and Gilbreth is to abandon the current adversarial system for determining child custody in favor of a system emphasizing the development of co-parenting plans. Not only do co-parenting plans detail the amount of time children will spend with each parent, but also the types of responsibilities each parent will adopt and the need for future cooperation in setting limits and enforcing rules.

I agree. The current adversarial system only encourages divorcing parents to view children as prizes to be won in the battlefield known as divorce court. Shifting to a system which would require the development of co-parenting agreements would help to de-militarize divorce.

Still, call me crazy, but I can't help but wonder: Wouldn't it be even better if we had fewer non-resident fathers in the first place? Just a thought.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn