Research concerning the impacts fathers and fatherlessness on children.

The Effects of Fatherlessness On A Boy's Development

Despite a large body of research concerning the impacts fathers have on their children, significant misconceptions among the public and differences of opinion among professionals persist. Popular notions include:married fathers are better fathers to their children than unwed fathers, involved non-resident fathers are better than no father at all, children need a mother and a father not two mothers or two fathers, or that children in the Black community would be better off if their parents got married.

Four states have laws prohibiting same sex couples from adopting including Florida, Mississippi, Michigan and Utah. (Author’sNote: As of March 31, 2016 adoptions by same sex parents are now legal in all 50 states.) Professionals may argue that Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977) dictates two parents, one male and one female,are required so that children will have gender appropriate role models to models for healthy development. A review of the literature quickly paints a differing picture of what is healthy for children and what has little if any impact on healthy development. The literature is generally in agreement that there are three critical factors for the healthy development of a child (Bornstein, 2002; Bornstein & Lamb, 2011; Damon & Lerner, 2006; Golombek, 2000; Lamb, 1999, 2010; Lamb & Freund, 2010, Smith & Hart, 2010). These factors include; the quality of the child’s relationship with its parent or parent figures, the quality of the relationship between the parents or caregivers, and the adequacy of social, economic and physical resources. It is also evident that when adequate family circumstances are created by these three factors the impact of traumatic events on children, especially boys,is reduced (Nilsson, Gustaffson, & Svedin, 2010).

Boys may or may not benefit from non-resident father involvement. One study showed that White adolescent males of predominately divorced single-mothers had alarmingly higher rates of delinquency, heavy drinking and drug use when their fathers were absent, compared to adolescent males with resident or non-resident involved fathers. Black adolescents on the other hand, raised in never married single-mother families had the highest rates of delinquency, heavy drinking and drug use when the non-resident father was involved. A similar effect was not detected for female adolescents whether they were Black or White. And a longitudinal study of lesbian families found no evidence that fatherless boys without male role models were more likely to develop behavioral problems. Nor was there empirical evidence supporting the claims that boys need a same-sex parent for healthy psychological development (Bos, 2012).

There is some empirical evidence of negative consequences for children without resident or non-resident fathers. Both male and female children growing up in fatherless homes reach puberty about 2 months earlier than their fathered peers (Bogaert, 2005). This may increase the likelihood of early sexual activity and pregnancy. Children in intact families are more likely to do well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (Furr, 1998). The evidence does not argue against the desirability of stable families with two resident biological parents. However, it does show that when certain conditions are met, other nontraditional families can be just as effective in providing a nurturing environment for developmentally normal and well-adjusted children. 

Annotated Bibliography

Bogaert, A. F. (2005), Age at puberty and father absence in a national probability sample. Journal of Adolescence, 28, 541-546.

The author, from Brock University, St. Catherine’s, Canada, was interested in determining if the absence of a father had an impact on the age of pubescence. The author is interested in the timing of puberty from a general developmental perspective, but also because early puberty has been associated with negative health outcomes such as juvenile delinquency(Flannery, Rowe, & Gulley, 1993), sexual promiscuity(e.g., Caspi & Moffitt, 1991), depression, anxiety and some cancers(e.g.,Vihko & Apter, 1986). This study advances earlier studies since earlier studies failed to use representative samples and included only girls and women. A sample of male (N=1511) and female (N=1921) adolescents was selected using a probability sample of U.S. households and followed up with a supplementary questionnaire. A variety of family arrangements were examined. Only father presence/absence predicted an early pubescence for both males (p = 0.05) and females (p = 0.02). The effect for males and females was not large (e.g.,females having menarche2.9 months sooner). Having a stepfather or absent mother showed no similar effect. Ethnicity was included in the original data, however for this study ethnicity was recorded only as White or not-White. The findings or significance of this data were not discussed by the authors. Although this study provides researchers and clinicians with additional evidence of the importance of having the biological father living with his children, the mechanism causing early pubescence is not identified.

Bos, H., Goldberg, N., Van Gelderen, L.& Gartrell, N. (2012).Adolescents of the U.S. national longitudinal lesbian family study: male role models, gender role traits and psychological adjustment. Gender & Society, 26(4), 603-608.

Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977) postulates that children learn gender roles by observing and modeling the behavior of the same sex parent, siblings and friends. Cognitive Developmental Theory predicts that learning gender is not a passive process, but that children play an active role in constructing for themselves what it means to be a boy or a girl from their social environment. Based on theories of gender socialization Hetherington, Bridges and Insabella (1998) and Sax (2006, 2007) have suggested that the absence of a same sex parent might lead to problems developing a stable gender identification leading to psychological problems. This study focuses on the influence of male role models on children participating in the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Study (NLLFS) and includes78 adolescents(68 White, 3 Latino/Latina, 2 African American, 2 Asian/Pacific Islander, 1 Armenian, 1 Lebanese and 1 Native American)and their mothers from the study. About half of the adolescents had male role models. This study obtained information using the State-Trait Personality Inventory (STPI) completed by the adolescents and the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL / 6-18) completed by their mothers.The adolescents completed a short version of the Bem Sex Role Inventory (Bem, 1981). Scores on the masculine or feminine sub-scale scores found no evidence to support the hypothesis that male role models influence the acquisition of gender traits. Further, variables for anger, depression and curiosity were examined to determine if there was a relationship with gender, availability of male role models, the BSRI feminine and masculine traits sub-scale score or the interactions among these variables. No significant relationships were found. Gender was significantly related to only one variable. Girls reported significantly higher levels of anxiety than boys. The findings of this study were inconsistent with the Social Learning Theory postulate that sons without male role models may not develop stereotypical gender roles. Because the study focused only on offspring reared in planned lesbian families, the results are not generalizable to other types of families. Non-White participants were not a significant portion of the sample. The possible effects of ethnicity/race are not evaluated or discussed. 

Carlson, M. J. (2006). Family structure, father involvement, and adolescent behavioral outcomes. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 137-154.

This study uses data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to determine what effect father involvement has on four measures of adolescent behavior including: externalizing subscale of the behavior problems index(BPI) (Peterson & Zill, 1986), delinquency, negative feelings, and internalizing sub-scale of the BPI.Data were merged from the 1996 and 2000 survey waves which resulted in a sample size of 2,733 (1,367 boys and 1,366 girls) adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14. This sample of adolescents was 77.6% White, 14.9% African American and 7.5% Latino/Latina.Independent variables for the study included family structure history, biological father involvement and mother’s involvement. Other variables such as race/ethnicity, mother’s age at birth, mother’s education and SES were included, but are not reported on by the authors. For all four measures, highly involved biological fathers had a statistically significant effect on the results (p < .05, as determined by least significant tests using one-way ANOVA). For the Externalizing BPI, adolescents of Highly Involved Father scored much better compared to No Father (45.09 vs. 66.45, M = 53.76, SD = 26.88). Similar results were found for the Delinquency Index (1.26 vs. 1.56, M = 1.36, SD = 0.43),Negative Feelings Index (1.70 vs. 1.92, M = 1.82, SD = 0.37) and the Internalizing BPI (43.54 vs. 59.03, M = 49.16, SD –26.86). The results of gender interaction models suggest little difference in how father involvement affects boys versus girls. The results do provide strong evidence that fathers living with their children have a more positive effect on their children’s behavior than even highly involved non-resident fathers. Any possible effects of race/ethnicity are not discussed by this report. 

Dunn, J. (2004), Annotation: Children’s relationships with their non-resident fathers. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(4), pp 659-671.

The author is with the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center, Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, UK and has interest in the significance of the father’s role and relationship with his children, in their well-beingand in their overall adjustment. The results of recent meta-analyses in this area are discussed, and findings related to the father/child relationship are presented. The areas evaluated including economic support, and frequency and quality of contact with their children. The evaluation also examines factors associated with the father/child relationship such as; the relationship between the non-resident father and the children’s mother, “gate-keeping” by mothers, the father’s new families, the pre-separation relationship between children and their father and the relationship between non-resident fathers and step-fathers. Children of non-resident fathers and their continued contact after domestic abuse are within the scope of the review. The results of this review indicated that the relationship between non-resident fathers and adjustment outcomes became less closely linked over time. Three important patterns to relationships that become evident over time. First, inter-parent conflict is a less powerful predictor of adjustment for young children at the time of parental separation. (Clarke-Stewart, Vandell, McCartney, Owen & Booth, 2000). Second, 7 to 12 year old children are less likely to blame the children for the marital conflict than are younger children (Grych, 1998). And, that age was unrelated to the positive aspects of the child / non-resident father relationship, however conflicts with the father decreased with age (Dunn et al., 2003). Evidence does not suggest that gender had an impact on the quality of the child / non-resident father relationship: boys did not benefit more than girls (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Whiteside & Becker, 2000). However, two prospective studies of girls in the U.S. and New Zealand reported an association between father absence and an elevated risk for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy (Ellis et al., 2003). In the U.S., authoritative parenting by non-resident fathers of White adolescents in single-mother households were associated with lower levels of delinquent behavior (Thomas, Ferrell, & Barnes, 1996). The highest rates of delinquent behavior among White adolescents studied by Thomas was among those with the lowest level of non-resident father involvement. However, for Black adolescents in this same study the picture was very different. For Black male adolescents, there were fewer problems when the non-resident fathers were not involved in single-mother families. This highlights how the significance of race, gender, emotional history and the relationships between parents are linked to child outcomes. This study evaluated subjects selected on the basis of family structure and consequently excludes information from non-resident fathers except those still in contact with their children. The range and demographics of these fathers are omitted from the analysis. These factors include level of education, occupation, financial situation, personality, criminal and/or anti-social behaviors. Most data in these instances is provided by the mother who may or may not be a reliable source. 

Flouri, E. I., & Malmberg, L. E., (2012). Fathers' involvement and preschool children’s behavior in stable single-mother families. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 1237-1242. Doi:10.1016/j.child youth.2012.02.020

Eirini Flouri at the Department of Psychology and Human Development, institute of Education, University of London and Lars Erik Malmberg at the Department of Education, University of Oxford explore the bi-directional relationships between non-resident father’s involvement and their children’s behavior. Specifically, the authors “aim to explore whether, among this group of families, early childhood behavior predicts later father involvement over and above its association with later child behavior, and whether early father involvement predicts later child behavior over and above its associate with later father involvement”. Most previous studies include non-resident fathers who may have been resident for some period of the child’s life. This is problematic since the effects of parental separation may be responsible for any observed or measured effects. Flouir and Malmberg attempt to correct this problem by studying data which includes only continuously non-resident fathers. The data used was from the first two sweeps of the Millenium Cohort Study (MCS), a longitudinal study of more than 19,000children in the UK. This study included evaluation of 930 children using the Carey Infant Temperament Scale at age 9 months (Carey & McDevitt, 1978) and again at age 3 years using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, 1997). The study modeled socio-economic disadvantage (SED), as well as child behavior and father involvement covariates which included: mother parenting, depressed mood, ethnicity (White or non-White), socio-economic status, age, quality of inter-parental relationship, child’s age, child’s sex, and child’s developmental level. The authors found no evidence that non-resident father involvement had an effect on later child behavior. However, there was strong evidence that early non-resident father involvement predicted later non-resident father involvement. 

Furr, L. A. (1998), Fathers' characteristics and their children's scores on college entrance exams: a comparison of intact and divorced families. Adolescence, 33(131).

A variety of studies have been conducted to determine the impact of divorce on a child’s educational performance. These have determined that students in mother-only families finish fewer years of school and are less likely to enter college (Graham,Beller, & Hernandez, 1994) and that the effects may be more pronounced for boys (Hill & Duncan, 1987). The authors of this study determine what impact non-custodial fathers have on their children’s performance on college entrance exams. Two hypotheses are tested. First, SAT scores will be higher for children in divorced families when their fathers are involved. Second, paternal involvement and encouragement are positively related to SAT scores in both divorced and intact families. 231 students from two urban universities in the Midwest were given a questionnaire. All were under 24 years old, 79% were European American, 21% were African American and 58% were women.Just under 60% came from intact families. The findings suggest that divorced non-custodial fathers have less influence on their children’s performance than do fathers of intact families. Divorced father’s demographic characteristics (education, ethnicity, income) and supportive behaviors had no significant impact on SAT scores. Resident father’s supportive behaviors on the other hand did improve the child’s performance on the SAT.

Lamb, M. E. (2012). Mother, fathers, families and circumstances: Factors affecting children’s adjustment. Applied Developmental Science, 16(2), 98-111.

Michael E. Lamb is associated with the department of Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Mr. Lamb’s goal with this study was to summarize the literature from the previous 50 years and more than 1000 studies to determine those factors associated with children’s adjustment. Adjustment is used in this context to mean those personal characteristics (including the absence of psychological or psychiatric problems) that permit a person to function well in their everyday life. The author included studies of reviews by others (Bornstein, 2002; Bornstein & Lamb, 2011; Damon & Lerner, 2006; Golombek, 2000; Lamb, 1999, 2010; Lamb & Freund, 2010, Smith & Hart, 2010). This review leads the author to conclude that social scientists have reached a consensus on three factors that promote the healthy development and adjustment of children. These include: the quality of the child’s relationship with their parent or parents, the quality of the relationship between parents, and the availability of adequate economic, social, and physical resources. Society’s assumptions about the superiority of the nuclear family with one father and one mother are being challenged (Silverstein & Auerbach, 1999; Stevenson & Black, 1988). Studies evaluating divorced parents (Amato & Dorius, 2010), homosexual parents (Greene, 1978), children in daycare (Lamb & Ahnert, 2006   ), stay at home fathers (Russell, 1999) and others have concluded that the three factors previously discussed are the basis upon which a child’s healthy development and adjustment depend. Many studies have shown that the majority of children and adolescents who spent their childhood living apart from one of their parents are well adjusted (Amato & Dorius, 2010; Lamb, Sternberg, & Thompson, 1997). Conversely, this same research has indicated that children in one parent families are twice as likely as children in two parent families to have adjustment problems. The primary causes for increased maladjustment amongst children of single parent households include disturbed relationships one or both parents (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999), reduced resources (Biblarz & Gottainer, 2000) and unstable living arrangements (Booth & Amato, 2001). Based upon this study of the literature, it can be argued that it is well established that the healthy adjustment of children is dependent upon the quality of their relationships with their parents, the relationships between their parents or caregivers, and the availability of economic and socio-economic resources. These three factors rather than family structural factors (non-traditional families, gay parents, single parents, etc.) are predominate determinates of a child’s healthy outcome. Although this analysis included parent-child relationships, adult-adult relationships, economic and social resources, traditional and non-traditional families, gay and lesbian parents, single mother families, and biological ties; the effects of ethnicity were not considered.  

Nilsson, D. K., Gustaffson, P. E., & Svedin, C. G. (2010). Polytraumatization and trauma symptoms in adolescent boys and girls: Interpersonal and noninterpersonal events and moderating effects of adverse family circumstances. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 27(13) 2645-2664. doi: 10.1177/0886260512436386

The authors Doris K. Nilsson and Carl G. Svedin  both at Linköping University, Linköpin, Swedenand Per E. Gustafsson from Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden investigated the cumulative effects of interpersonal and non-interpersonal traumatic events on the mental health of adolescents and if those traumatic events are in any way moderated by adverse family circumstances. Data was collected from 462 adolescents (mean age 16.7), using the Lincöping Youth Life experience Scale (Nilsson, Gustafsson, Larsson, & Svedin, 2010) and the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (Briere, 1996). It was determined that the prevalence of traumatic events was high; with boys having an average of 10.0 events (SD= 4.0), and girls 8.8 events (SD= 4.0). Cumulative exposure to both interpersonal and non-interpersonal traumatic events contributed to the total score of trauma symptoms as measured with the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children. The author’s data also indicates that adverse family conditions worsened the effects of interpersonal and non-interpersonal traumatic events, but only for boys. The reason for this effect being demonstrated only in boys is not explained by the study. The authors offer some tentative explanations and areas for further study; including social expectations for boys to be strong and not reach out for help, or gender differences where girls are more prone to internalize events and for boys to externalize events. A weakness of this study was the lack of demographic data for the participants such as SES or family status. Students were the only informants for both the exposure and outcome so common-method variance may have biased the results. Neither ethnicity nor race are discussed in this study. If one assumes this is because all participants were White-European, then applicability to other groups may be limited.

Perry, A. R., Harmon, D. K., & Leeper, J. (2012). Resident Black father’s involvement: A comprehensive analysis of married and unwed cohabitating fathers. Journal of Family Issues, 33(6) 695-714. doi: 10.1177/0192513X11428125

Armon R. Perry at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, Dana K. Harmon at the University of West Alabama, Livingston AL, and James Leeper at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL compare child involvement of Black married fathers with that of Black unwed cohabitating fathers. The sample for this study was drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study(Center for Research on Child Well-being, 2008), and included 617 Black fathers who participated in the year 5 wave of the Fragile Families study. The researcher attempt to test two hypotheses. One, are there differences in child involvement between Black married fathers and Black cohabitating fathers? Two are there factors predicting father involvement for married Black fathers and cohabitating Black Fathers? Measures included paternal involvement, perceived maternal support (based on father’s responses),work flexibility, religiosity, paternal self-assessment and the father’s parenting stress. The results show that the unwed cohabitating fathers were more involved (M= 33.6, SD= 9.80) than the married fathers (M= 31.58, SD= 10.57). These differences are statistically significant= 2.418 (df= 597, p= .01). For married Black fathers significant as predictors of family involvement included low levels of parenting stress, younger age, greater religiosity and multiple-partner fertility. For the unwed cohabitating Black fathers only perceived maternal support was significant in predicting father’s involvement. The authors conclude that although the results were statistically significant, the effect size was small and don’t represent dramatically different levels of involvement between married Black fathers and unwed cohabitating Black fathers. Given that this study’s findings are in apparent conflict with other similar studies finding higher paternal involvement for married fathers (Malone-Colon & Roberts, 2006), there may be additional influencing factors for parental involvement that have yet to be identified.  

Thomas, G., Farrell, M. P., & Barnes, G. M. (1996). The effects of single-mother families and nonresident fathers on delinquency and substance abuse in Black and White adolescents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 58(4) 884-894

George Thomas at the Research Institute on Addictions, Michael P. Farrell at State University of New York at Buffalo and Grace M. Barnes also at the Research Institute on Addictions conducted this study to determine the impact nonresident father’s involvement has on single-mother families’ delinquency, heavy drinking and drug use. The study was able to differentiate between Black and White adolescents and gender. Rather than focusing on the negative outcomes, these researches are asking questions to determine those conditions in single-mother households where children are functioning well. This approach has the advantage of providing valuable and applicable information to parents and counselors. A representative sample of more than 700 adolescents (142 Black, 361 White and Other)and their parents was selected from an ongoing longitudinal study that began in 1989 (Barnes, Farrell, Welch,Uhteg, & Dintcheff, 1991). Family structure was initially reported by the mothers and included; families with two biological parents (n = 307), single-mother families (n = 196) and other family structures (n = 218). Of the White single mothers 84% were divorced. This is in contrast to 77% of Black single-mothers who had never been married. The study compares family structure for both Black and White families with delinquency, heavy drinking and drug use. The authors anticipated a higher effect of family structure on males which the study confirmed. Separate MANCOVAS for males and females looking at the effects of race and family structure confirmed an effect for males (F = 3.1, p < .01), but not for females (F = 1.1, ns). Interestingly, the findings for White males were the opposite of those for Black males. Both Black and White males in two biological parent households had a low mean for delinquency, heavy drinking and drug use. However, in single-mother families with the father involved, Black males had significantly higher means for all three measures while White males showed insignificant effects. And in single-mother families with no father involvement the opposite is true. White males had significantly higher means for delinquency, heavy drinking and drug use, while Black males had means close to those for Black males in families with two biological parents. Further analysis by the authors shows that in single-mother families with father involvement Black and white adolescents have similar outcomes. The worst outcomes occur among White males in single mother families with no father involvement.  Explanations for the differences in outcome between White and Black adolescents are not provided by the study. However, the authors do provide some potential hypotheses for future research


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