July 15, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The most recent study on the effects of fathers on children is aimed squarely at the heart of family laws and family judges who marginalize fathers in children’s lives (Science Daily, 7/14/16). The study is new, but of course the message isn’t. Fathers are vitally important to children’s well-being and, frankly, nothing else quite measures up. There is no excuse for limiting fathers’ or mothers’ time with children post-divorce. Equal parenting is by far the best arrangement.
The study in question was done by researchers at Michigan State University.
Fathers play a surprisingly large role in their children's development, from language and cognitive growth in toddlerhood to social skills in fifth grade, according to new findings from Michigan State University scholars.
The research provides some of the most conclusive evidence to date of fathers' importance to children's outcomes and reinforces the idea that early childhood programs such as Head Start should focus on the whole family, including mother and father alike. The findings are published online in two academic journals, Early Childhood Research Quarterly and Infant and Child Development.
"There's this whole idea that grew out of past research that dads really don't have direct effects on their kids, that they just kind of create the tone for the household and that moms are the ones who affect their children's development," said Claire Vallotton, associate professor and primary investigator on the research project. "But here we show that fathers really do have a direct effect on kids, both in the short term and long term."
The researchers studied 730 families whose kids were enrolled in early Head Start programs. That of course means they studied a specific demographic, i.e. mostly poorer families. They studied the negative outcomes on kids of stress and mental health problems of the parents. Unsurprisingly, parents with depression or significant stress levels tended to negatively affect their children’s cognitive skills and language development. Fathers with those problems disproportionately affected their sons.
One lesson from the study that’s not mentioned in the article would seem to be that single parenthood is a bad idea. Single parents tend to have higher stress levels than do dual parents. The reasons are obvious. Single parents have less money, so financial woes produce stress. Because there’s no second parent the single parent is tasked with providing every need of the child, whatever the time of day or night. Again, that causes stress. And the awareness by the single parent that there’s no backup should anything go wrong does the same.
Looking at the positive side of the study’s findings, healthy dads provide unique benefits to their kids in the areas of social skills and cognitive and language development. That’s where the courts and legislatures come in. The researchers emphasize that fathers are more than providers of income and should be treated as such. That would seem to mean that, although the quantity of time spent with children isn’t the determining factor, it’s hard or impossible to have quality time if Dad’s trying to cram it into a couple of days every other weekend and a few hours on Wednesday night. There’s no way that’s quality time. Therefore, courts and legislatures must do what’s necessary to give fathers enough time with their children post-divorce for the benefits of fathering to take effect.
Finally, the research provides important guidance for the myriad of fathering programs that have sprung up across the country. I’ve discussed those and, among other things, pointed out that, however they’re packaged, those programs look very much like one thing – collection agencies. First, last and always, they exist to collect child support from fathers. In the process they may provide benefits to the fathers. If Dad has a problem with drug or alcohol use, the program may get him needed help. If he’s having trouble finding a job, it may help there too. Those are good things. But there’s little doubt that the only reason those types of interventions exist for those dads is so that they can keep the child support flowing.
Tamesha Harewood, lead author on the paper in Infant and Child Development, said fathers, in addition to mothers, should be included in parenting research and family-intervention programs and policies.
"A lot of family-risk agencies are trying get the dad more involved, but these are some of the things they could be missing," said Harewood, a researcher in MSU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "When the agency is talking with the dad, it's not just about providing for your child economically, but also to be there for your child, to think about how stress or depression might be influencing your child. In order to understand and help children in their development, there needs to be a comprehensive view of the whole family, including both mom and dad."
So, in addition to changing family laws and judges’ decisions in child custody cases, this research asks us to change fathering programs so that dads aren’t just seen as a source of income for Mom.
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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