Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

Psychology News & Resources

Fathers: What Does Recent Research Show?

Once again, in the lead up Fathers Day in Australia this Sunday, here is some information about some of the recent research on the role of fathers in parenting.

Credit: The Fatherhood Institute

Fathers and child development

Before we specifically look at fathers’ involvement in and influence on children’s education and learning, it’s important to understand fathers’ influence on the ‘whole child’, since characteristics such as self-esteem, self-regulation, self-efficacy and locus of control1 are emerging as key predictors of children’s educational and other attainment.

Since 1975, an increasingly sophisticated body of research has been charting the pathways through which fathers2 influence their children’s development.

For example, a systematic review of studies which took account of mothers’ involvement and gathered data from different independent sources3, found ‘positive’ father involvement associated with a range of desirable outcomes for children and young people. These included: better peer relationships; fewer behaviour problems; lower criminality and substance abuse; higher educational / occupational mobility relative to parents’; capacity for empathy; non-traditional attitudes to earning and childcare; more satisfying adult sexual partnerships; and higher self-esteem, life-satisfaction and ‘locus of control’ – that is, (Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004). Other substantial studies and reviews (Sarkadi et al, 2008; Flouri, 2005) have delivered similar findings. All this is relevant to children’s educational outcomes, since ‘better functioning’ in life in general tends to correlate with attainment.

Of course, fathers, like mothers, can also influence their children’s development in negative ways – and this is now recognised to be a very important reason for engaging with them. Low levels of father involvement are associated with a range of negative outcomes in children (for review, see Flouri, 2005). Poor outcomes in children are also found where fathers parent in negative ways or are seriously troubled themselves (for review, see Lloyd et al, 2003). Poor outcomes in children are also associated with their fathers’ substance misuse (Velleman, 2004, p.188) and with fathers’ abuse of their children’s mothers (Jaffee et al, 1990)4

It has often been argued that no father is better than a bad father. That can of course be true – just as no mother can be better than a bad mother. However, seeking to improve fathers’ behaviour should be the first port of call, since ‘ending’ the father-child relationship generally brings its own problems, and many fathers, once they are engaged with, can change their behaviour in a positive direction. And when children do not see their fathers, or do not see them very much, they tend to demonise or idealise them (Kraemer, 2005; Gorrell Barnes et al, 1998) or blame themselves for their absence (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001). Being ‘without my dad’ causes most children and young people a lot of distress, anger and self-doubt (Fortin et al, 2006; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 1998); and can contribute to difficulties with peer relationships, including bullying (Parke et al, 2004; Berdondini & Smith, 1996). And when fathers’ absence leaves mothers more stressed because they are struggling to parent alone or because they have less money, then children suffer again (McLanahan, 1997; McLanahan & Teitler, 1999).

Levels/trends in fathers’ involvement in their children’s learning

US research (National Center for Fathering, 2009) reports that while 32% of fathers never visit their child’s classroom and 54% never volunteer at school, the trend for their involvement is upward. Over the past 10 years the percentage of fathers taking their child to school has risen from 38% to 54%; attending class events from 28% to 35%; visiting their child’s classroom from 30% to 41% and volunteering at their child’s school from 20% to 28%. Attending parent-teacher conferences is up from 69% to 77%; attending school meetings from 28% to 35%; and attending school-based parents’ meetings from 47% to 59%.

While similar ‘trend’ data are not yet gathered in the UK, in Scotland the South Lanarkshire ‘Father Figures’ online survey of 177 men (Henderson, 2007) has delivered some baseline data: 86% of the respondent fathers said they read books/newspapers with their children at home; 60% claimed to help with their child’s homework or schoolwork ‘often’, with only 3% ‘never’ helping with this; 77% ‘often’ went to parents’ night, with only 3% ‘never’ attending; only 3% of respondents ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ read their child’s school report card; and only 12% ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ attended their child’s school show.

Another 2007 UK survey (Peters et al, 2008) found that 70% of co-resident fathers and 81% of non-resident parents (mainly men) wanted to be more involved in their children’s education. Mothers were only marginally more likely than fathers (53% compared to 45%) to say they felt ‘very involved’ in their child’s education.

While fathers in all developed countries are less involved than mothers both in their children’s educational settings and in educational activities at home (for review, see Clark, 2009), in many instances his may be related less to gender than to work commitments: Peters et al (2008) found that while fathers overall were helping with homework less often than mothers there were no differences between mothers and fathers who worked full time. Similarly, Williams et al 2002) found 24% of full-time working fathers (compared with 26% of full-time working mothers) reporting feeling very involved in their child’s school life; and 14% of full-time working fathers (compared with 16% of full-time working mothers) helping out in classrooms.

It seems that fathers are involved more often than mothers in specific types of activities in their children’s out of school learning: such as building and repairing, hobbies, IT, maths and physical play (Goldman, 2005).

Click image to read reviews

Fathers’ involvement and children’s educational attainment

Helping fathers be the ‘best fathers they can be’ is clearly of enormous importance to children; and positive outcomes in terms of children’s learning and achievement at school can be traced quite clearly to the quality of their fathers’ engagement with them. Just as poor parenting by fathers (and mothers) is associated with lower educational attainment by their children, so fathers’ affection, support, warm-but-firm parenting style and high levels of ‘parental sensitivity’5 are strongly related to their children’s better educational outcomes. For example:

  • “School readiness” in young children is associated with high levels of paternal sensitivity, over and above mothers’ sensitivity (Campbell & von Stauffenberg, 2008)
  • Fathers’ support for their children’s autonomy has been found (controlling for a range of variables) to be significantly and uniquely associated with higher levels of reading and mathematics achievement among Grade 3 boys (NICHD, 2008).

Several reliable studies have shown high levels of interest by a father in his child’s schooling and education, his high expectations for their achievement and his greater direct involvement in their learning, education and schools to be associated with their better educational outcomes. These include: better exam / test / class results; higher levels of educational qualification; greater progress at school; better attitudes towards school (e.g. enjoyment); higher educational expectations; and better behaviour at school (e.g. reduced risk of suspension or expulsion). And these outcomes do not derive from the school-involved fathers already being richer or better educated. Whatever the father’s socio-economic level, his high involvement paid off.6

One high quality study demonstrated that a father’s interest in his child’s education is one of the most important factors governing the qualifications he or she will grow up to have in adult life – more important than family background, the child’s individual personality, or poverty. It may well be that the time fathers actually spend with their children on homework and schooling could be more important for their eventual success than the money they bring into the household (for review see Goldman, 2005).

Here are some specific findings:

  • A UK survey (Clark et al, 2009) reports children and young people claiming their fathers are the second most important people in their lives to inspire reading (second only to mothers).
  • Frequency of fathers’ reading to 12 year olds is linked with their greater interest in books later (Lyytinen et al, 1998).
  • A significant relationship is found between positive father engagement at age 6, and IQ and educational achievement at age 7 (Gottfried et al, 1988).
  • A father’s own education level is an important predictor of his child’s educational achievement7.
  • English fathers’ involvement with their children (at ages 7 and 11) correlates with better national examination performance at age 16 (Lewis et al, 1982).
  • US fathers’ involvement in routine childcare has been associated with children’s higher school grades (Hoffman & Youngblade, 1999).8
  • Low paternal interest in children’s education has a stronger negative impact on children’s lack of qualifications than contact with the police, poverty, family type, social class, housing tenure and child’s personality (Blanden, 2006).

Findings vary as to the relative importance of mothers’ v. fathers’ influence on educational attainment, with no consistent pattern emerging from the research evidence.9

The following studies have charted more powerful influence from fathers than mothersin specific circumstances, although it must be remembered that the quality of these studies varies, and results may be specific to time and place:

In low income communities, fathers’ influence has been found to be more significant than mothers’ for boys’ (but not girls’) escape from disadvantage.10

However, in a wider sample of children born in 1970, fathers’ interest in their children’s educational outcomes when those children were aged 10 predicted educational attainment in their 26 year old daughters, but not their sons (Flouri, 2006).

Fathers exert greater influence than mothers on boys’ educational choices.11

Fathers’ risk-avoidance behaviour12 has a positive impact on sons’ (but not daughters’) educational attainment (Yeung, 2004).

Fathers’ income predicts sons’ (but not daughters’) years of schooling (Yeung, 2004).

In hierarchical communities, fathers’ influence may be more powerful on children of both sexes.13

While within-gender variation is enormous, and parents’ vocabulary use is far more powerfully affected by their education level than their sex, some studies suggest that fathers’ verbal interactions with their children may differ from mothers’; and that this may sometimes be to their children’s advantage. Fathers have been found to use different words with their children (Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2006); and also more abstract words (Lamb & Tamis-LeMonda, 2004). Topics may also vary by gender, with mothers referring more frequently to emotions (this was found to predict children’s emotional understanding) and fathers more often using causal explanatory language, which predicated their children’s theory of mind (LaBounty et al, 2008).

Footnotes

1 The belief that one can control much of what happens to oneself in life

2 Although biological fathers are of unique important to children – being one of the ‘two people who made me’ – ‘fathers’ in this report are defined widely to include father-figures and other males who are of significance to children in their care.

3 This is really important, as it helps isolate fathers’ influence from other influences.

4 None of this research shows that fathers are a more negative influence on children than mothers are (see Leinonen et al, 2003).

5 Fathers who exhibit ‘parental sensitivity’ generally function as a supportive presence, respect their children’s autonomy and exhibit low levels hostility towards them. This is more often found in men who were older when they first became fathers, hold less traditional child rearing beliefs and report more intimacy with their children’s mothers (NICHD, 2000).

6 McBride et al (2004) found father involvement in school settings mediates the relationship between school, family and neighbourhood factors and academic outcomes. This study is particularly interesting in that it not only looked at fathers’ involvement in terms of activities (‘volunteering’, ‘going on school trips’) but also measured frequency of fathers’ ‘talks with school officials’ as well as their ‘talks with the child’ about events and activities at school. All were associated with better child achievement (see also McBride et al, 2005).

7 While there may be a small genetic effect, the main reason is likely to be that a father’s education affects his behaviour in ways that are vital to his child’s cognitive development, as well as impacting on the material and educational resources he can provide (Yeung, 2004).

8 Fathers’ co-parenting behavior (defined as sharing similar attitudes with mothers toward childrearing practices and resolving family conflicts in a calm way that makes good use of compromise) may in part explain these findings: Yeung (2004) found a one point of increase in fathers’ co-parenting behaviour associated with an almost four-point increase in children’s test scores. Fathers’ co-parenting behaviour was second only to their education level in predicting good educational outcomes for children – and both proved more important than fathers’ income (Yeung, 2004).

9 In some studies fathers are found to be more influential; in others, mothers; and in yet others, parental influence seems to be equivalent.

10 For boys born into poverty, this high quality longitudinal UK study (which controlled for a range of factors, including mother’s interest in education) found having a father with little or no interest in his education reduced boys’ chances of escaping poverty by 25% (Blanden, 2006).

11 Dryler (1998). Mothers’ influence is more powerful for daughters.

12 Such as wearing seatbelts, having savings, and having car insurance.

13 Ang (2006) found Asian fathers’ (but not mothers’) approval, closeness and sympathy with their children associated with positive teacher-child relationships for both boys and girls.

REFERENCES

Ang, R.P. (2006). Fathers do matter: evidence from an Asian school-based aggressive sample. American Journal of Family Therapy, 34, 7993.

Berdondini, L., & Smith, P.K. (1996). Cohesion and power in the families of children involved in bully-victim problems at school: an Italian replication, Journal of Family Therapy, 18, 99102.

Blanden, J. (2006). ‘Bucking the trend’: What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? Working Paper No 31 Corporate Document Services. London: Department for Work and Pensions.

Clark, C. (2009). Why fathers matter to their children’s literacy. London: National Literacy Trust.

Clark, C., Osborne, S. & Dugdale, G. (2009). Reaching out with role models. London: National Literacy Trust.

Dryler, H. (1998). Parental role models, gender and educational choice. British Journal of Sociology, 49(3), 375398.

Flouri, E. (2005). Fathering & Child Outcomes. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Flouri, E. (2006). Parental interest in children’s education, children’s self-esteem and locus of control, and later educational attainment: Twenty-six year follow-up of the 1970 British birth cohort. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 4155.

Fortin, J., Ritchie, C., & Buchanan, A. (2006). Young adults’ perceptions of court-ordered contact. Child and Family Law Quarterly, 18(2), 211229.

Goldman, R. (2005). Fathers’ Involvement in their Children’s Education. London: National Family and Parenting Institute.

Gorrell Barnes, G., Thompson, P., Daniel, G., & Burchardt, N. (1998). Growing up in Stepfamilies. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Guterman, N.B., & Lee, Y. (2005). The role of fathers in risk for physical child abuse and neglect: possible pathways and unanswered questions. Child Maltreatment, 10(2), 136149.

Henderson, R. (2007). Father Figures Survey. Hamilton: South Lanarkshire Home School Partnership, Council Offices

Hoffman, L.W., & Youngblade, L.M. (1999). Mothers at work: Effects on children’s well-being. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jaffee, S.R., Wolfe, D. & Wilson, S. (1990). Children of Battered Women. London: Sage Publications.

Kraemer, S. (2005): Narratives of fathers and sons: there is no such thing as a father. In A. Vetere & E. Dowling (eds.), Narrative Therapies with Children and their Families: A Practitioners Guide to Concepts and Approaches. London: Brunner/Routledge.

LaBounty, J., Wellman, H. M., Olson, S., Lagattuta, K. & Liu, D. (2008). Mothers’ “and” fathers’ use of internal state talk with their young children. Social Development, 17, 757775.

Lamb, M.E. & Tamis-LeMonda, C.S. (2004). The role of the father. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), The role of the father in child development (pp. 131). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Laumann-Billings, L.L., & Emery, R.E. (1998). Young adults’ painful feelings about parental divorce. Unpublished paper, University of Virginia.

Leinonen, J.A., Solantaus, T.S., & Punamaki, R.-L. (2003). Parental mental health and children’s mental health adjustment: the quality of marital interaction and parenting as mediating factors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 227241.

Lewis, C., Newson, L J., & Newson, E. (1982). Father participation through childhood. In N. Beail & J. McGuire (eds.)., Fathers: Psychological Perspectives. London: Junction.

Lloyd, N., O’Brien, M., & Lewis, C. (2003). Fathers in Sure Start Local Programmes. Report 04 National Evaluation of Sure Start. London: Birkbeck, University of London.

Lyytinen, P., Laasko, M., & Poikkeus, S. (1998). Parental contribution to child’s early language and interest in books. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 13, 297308.

McBride, B.A., Schoppe-Sullivan S.J., & Ho, M.H. (2005). The mediating role of fathers’ school involvement on students’ achievement. Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 201216.

McBride, C.M., Baucom, D.H., Peterson, B.L. Pollack, K.I., Palmer, C., Westman, E. et al (2004). Prenatal and postpartum smoking abstinence: a partner-assisted approach. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(3), 232238.

McLanahan, S.S. (1997). Paternal absence or poverty: which matters more? In G. Duncan & J. Brooks-Gunn (eds.), Consequences of Growing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

McLanahan, S., & Teitler, J. (1999). The consequences of father absence. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), Parenting and Child Development in ‘Nontraditional Families’. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

National Center for Fathering (2009). Survey of fathers’ involvement in their children’s learning. View the summary

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2000). Factors associated with fathers’ caregiving activities and sensitivity with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 14.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2008). Mothers’ and fathers’ support for child autonomy and early school achievement. Developmental Psychology, 44 (4).

Pancsofar, N. and Vernon-Feagans, L. (2006), Mother and father language input to young children: contributions to later language development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27, 571587.

Parke, R.D., Dennis, J., Flyr, J.L., Morris, K.L., Killian, C., McDowell, D.J., et al (2004). Fathering and children’s peer relationships. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development (4th ed.). Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Peters, M., Seeds, K., Goldstein, A. & Coleman, N. (2008). Parental Involvement in Children’s Education 2007. Research Report. DCSF RR034.

Pleck, J.H., & Masciadrelli, B.P. (2004). Paternal Involvement by U.S. residential fathers: levels, sources and consequences. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Pryor, J., & Rodgers, B. (2001). Children in Changing Families: life after parental separation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Sarkadi, A., Kristiansson, R., Oberklaid, F., & Bremberg, S. (2008).Fathers’ involvement and children’s developmental outcomes: a systematic review of longitudinal studies. Acta Paediatrica 97(2), 153158.

Velleman, R. (2004). Alcohol and drug problems in parents: an overview of the impact on children and implications for practice. In M. Gopfert, J. Webster & M.V. Seeman (eds.), Parental Psychiatric Disorder: distressed parents and their families (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Washbrook, L. (2007). Fathers, Childcare and Children’s Readiness to Learn. Working Paper No. 07/175. Bristol: University of Bristol.

Williams, B., Williams, J. & Ullman, A. (2002). Parental involvement in education. RR 332. London: DfES.

Yeung, W.J. (2004). Fathers: an overlooked resource for children’s school success. In D. Conley & K. Albright (eds.), After the Bell: Solutions Outside the School. London: Routledge.

© The Fatherhood Institute, January 2009

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September 3, 2010 - Posted by | Adolescence, Books, Child Behavior, Education, Girls, Parenting, research

1 Comment »

  1. I can say first hand that no father is better than a bad father. I grew up without a father since the age one 1, and when I see bad dads I know I lucked out for who ever mine ‘could’ have been. The long term effects of having no father can no be blamed on him but according to this information can be incredibly related: substance abuse, criminal activity, ADD, little patience, anger issues.. the list is endless. This is what growing up without a dad has done for me. For who I am now though, I can safely say ‘who knows? maybe I was better off?’

    Comment by ladyjane4rent | May 12, 2011 | Reply


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