October 18, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Here’s yet more information about the importance, particularly to boys, of being brought up in a family with a mother and a father (National Review, 10/14/15). The information isn’t new, but it buttresses what we’ve already come to understand. There’s a new study that finds that the dramatic difference between males and females in educational attainment is due in large part to the equally dramatic rise in single-parent households. Put simply, single motherhood has far more detrimental effects on sons than it does on daughters. One of the results of that can be found in education.
In a new article in Family Relations, William Doherty, Brian Willoughby, and Jason Wilde provide evidence for a thesis not many have considered: Changes in family structure have contributed to the growing gender gap in college enrollment. Growing up with stably married parents makes children of both sexes more likely to succeed at school, even controlling for socioeconomic status, but the absence of a father seems to hurt boys more than it does girls. Thus, as father absence becomes more prevalent, girls gain a relative advantage in the classroom.
The data the authors produced are remarkably on point.
Doherty and his coauthors share two major findings that support this theory. First, because they noticed that “the college enrollment gender gap . . . began to emerge about 18 years after the beginning of major population shifts in family structure,” they compared nonmarital birth rates from 1948 to 1993 with the gender difference in college enrollment from 1966 to 2011. They discovered “a near-perfect linear relationship” between changes in the two measures: “The higher the nonmarital birthrate grew, the lower the ratio of males to females [enrolled in college] became as each birth cohort reached age 18.”
Of course no correlation is definitive about causation, but when the correlation across decades is almost perfectly linear, it’s fair to conclude that we may be onto something. So the authors analyzed an additional set of data.
For this investigation, they used longitudinal data from Add Health on more than 15,000 young people who were in middle or high school in the mid-1990s…
The results showed that among young people who had lived with their fathers at some point, 72.1 percent of women and 63.1 percent of men had some college education, meaning men enrolled at 87.5 percent the rate of women. Among those with no father present, the figures were 61.3 percent for women and 49.2 percent for men; the men enrolled at 80.3 percent the rate of women. In other words, a gender gap favoring women was evident in both groups, but the gap was larger among young people whose father was absent. The ratio of the relative risks (0.918) indicated that the finding was statistically significant: “Males were disproportionately less likely than females to attend college if they came from a family in which the father had been absent from birth.” The method Doherty et al. used to analyze the Add Health data did not allow for controlling for the usual background characteristics; however, the relative education levels of the Add Health sample’s male-female sibling pairs, who would share many socio-demographic traits, were consistent with those of the overall sample.
Unfortunately, the Add Health data aren’t precisely broken down in a way that allowed Doherty, et al to know exactly how father-absent the various children were. For example, the data don’t indicate whether a child had no father since birth, had a father for a year, but not thereafter, had a father intermittently throughout its childhood, etc. So the findings aren’t as precise as some of us would like. Still, they’re are significant. Boys tend to do perfectly well in school when Dad’s at home. When it’s just Mom, or her and a boyfriend, or her and a stepfather, their outcomes tend to suffer.
Now, the author of the NR piece seems not to know it, but this information isn’t new. The study’s new, but we’ve seen others that reach similar conclusions. Here for example, is a piece I did almost four years ago. It’s based on this article (Telegraph, 1/3/12).
So why do boys but not girls without fathers tend to suffer in school? What is it about fatherlessness that uniquely impacts boys? There are several theories, some of which are detailed in the NR piece.
In “Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education,” a 2013 report from Third Way, David Autor and Melanie Wasserman provide some answers. First, long before gender and family-structure differences in college graduation appear, there emerge differences in academic performance and behavior at school. Boys get in more trouble than girls from elementary school onward, and the gender difference is greater among children from fatherless homes.
But that doesn’t explain the difference between girls’ and boys’ different responses to fatherlessness.
“If boys are more responsive to parental inputs (or the absence thereof) than are girls,” Autor and Wasserman summarize, “then it is possible that the gender gradient in behavioral and academic development could be magnified in single-parent households.”
That corresponds to the findings of the study from the Booth School of Business reported on by The Telegraph. The authors of that study theorized that single mothers tend to shortchange their sons emotionally, resulting in the educational deficits we see today.
Then there’s the possibility that the lack of role models affect boys more than it does girls. After all, girls in single-mother households have Mom as a role model, but their brothers have no corresponding adult role model. And of course, when they get to school, both girls and boys see almost nothing but women at the head of the class. These days, boys can go for many years before having any day-to-day contact with a responsible, adult male.
But allow me to suggest something that none of the studies has so far mentioned, despite the fact that biologists have known it for some time. Male children react more strongly to environmental stressors than do female children. So, in 1996, Flinn, et al found that, ”the presence or absence of father was related to the cortisol and testosterone levels of boys, but not of girls… As adults, father-absent men had higher cortisol levels and lower testosterone levels than their father-present peers. The endocrine profile of father-absent men suggests chronically high stress levels, which can significantly increase the risk for a number of physical disorders. In all, it was concluded that the “early family environment has significant effects on endocrine response throughout male life histories.” ( quoted in Geary, D., Male, Female, American Psychological Association, 2006).
Now, Flinn, et al are referring to physical ailments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that cortisol levels affect the educational outcomes of boys and men as well.
Suffice it to say that, as we’ve long known, fatherlessness has profound and detrimental effects on boys and girls, but mostly boys, long into adulthood. Those effects are found in an astonishing array of physical and emotional outcomes as well as behaviors. The evidence is mounting up that fatherless boys are more of a drain on societal resources than we’ve previously known.
Are family court judges listening? Are state legislators? I doubt it. The jury came back many years ago with the verdict on family courts, and it’s not good. Family courts are one of the prime separators of children from fathers, and everyone suffers because of it. And yet, they just keep doing the same old thing, hundreds of thousands of times every year.
Do they hope for different results, or are they simply indifferent to the societal damage they’re doing?
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