There is an epidemic of fatherlessness in Australia. Close to a million children live in one-parent families, mostly headed by mothers. That’s one in six children. After divorce, more than a third of children do not see their fathers, and one in six has contact only during the day. Next year’s election could be fought on these and other “family” issues. But is fatherlessness as destructive as some say it is?
The National Fatherhood Forum manifesto claims that "Fatherlessness and family breakdown are the major social problems of our society". Steve Biddulph in his best-selling book Raising Boys writes that boys with absent fathers are more likely to be violent, do poorly in schools, and join gangs. Even Prime Minister Howard has joined this chorus. Announcing the inquiry into child custody arrangements after divorce, he said that "One of the regrettable features of society at the present time is that far too many young boys are growing up without proper male role models".
Fathers are important to the well-being of children and families, and supporting fathers’ positive involvement is a worthy goal. Practically every player in the fatherhood debates agrees on this, and the research backs it up. But beyond this, the public debates so far have been dominated by simplistic and often inaccurate ideas about fatherlessness, as a recent Australia Institute report (pdf, 136 Kb)documents.
It is not the presence of a father, but the quality of parenting and family relationships, which makes the most difference to children’s wellbeing. Conflict-ridden and unhappy relationships are damaging to children, in both "intact" marriages and between separated parents. If their parents are constantly in conflict, children are actually better off if their parents divorce.
Simply trying to make sure there’s a father in every family won’t do much for children. The research on two-parent families finds that it is not the presence of fathers that is critical for children’s well-being, but the extent to which fathers engage in "authoritative" parenting. This is when fathers (or mothers) provide encouragement and support and offer non-coercive rule-setting and monitoring.
The same story holds for kids in single-mother families. Contact with fathers is not by itself a good predictor of their well-being, and the most consistent predictor again is fathers’ positive parenting.
It’s true that children raised in two-parent families do better than children from single-parent families, whether you compare their school results or psychological adjustment. But neither divorce nor fatherlessness by themselves determine children’s well-being. Most of the harms that divorce appears to inflict on children do not come from subsequent fatherlessness. They come from the stress and hostility that too often precede a divorce and the economic decline which often follows it.
Single mothers may find it hard to buy books and computers for their kids, and their jobs are more poorly paid and insecure than men’s. In other countries where government policy gives single-parent families more support, children’s outcomes are better.
Three-quarters of children from divorced families show no resulting negative effects. About 25 per cent of children in divorced and remarried families, and ten per cent of children in non-divorced families, show behavioural problems. While children often find their parents’ divorce to be very painful, they cope and nearly all go on to become competent adults.
Most fathers do their best to support their families, whether through parenting or paid work. But a minority of fathers, and mothers, are in no position to provide quality parenting and their presence in families will do more harm than good. A study of 1100 families in England and Wales found that one in seven fathers are involved in crime, fighting, or other anti-social and irresponsible behaviour. When these fathers resided with their children, the children were twice as likely to develop severe behaviour problems and clinically significant conduct disorders.
Fathers dealing with drug abuse, violence, mental health, and marginalisation must be supported but not at the expense of children, women or families.
Fathers’ positive involvement in families after divorce is being hindered but not by selfish mothers, nor by the Family Court. Fathers face the same obstacles to involvement they did before divorce: the excessive demands of family-hostile workplaces, the economic disadvantages of involved parenting (which many mothers already suffer), and policy barriers to shared care.
If we are to enhance fathers’ roles in families, we’ll need a more sophisticated grasp of the causes and consequences of fatherlessness, and a commitment to tackling the real obstacles to involved fathering.