In the hysteria over family values that has blurred the real and
the fictional, one thing's in extremely short supply - genuine
information. Now a major study has a startling take on the topic.
By focusing on the absence of fathers, everyone may be tuned to the
wrong channel. More significant is the influence of the parent who's
there - mom.
"The whole father issue is important," sociologist Frank Mott,
Ph.D., demurs. "But," his study shows, "there are much greater issues to
worry about, such as making sure girls graduate from high school before
they become pregnant, and making sure people have access to jobs that pay
more than welfare does."
Yes, Mott finds, absent fathers can have a negative impact on the
emotional development of some children. And father absence is a slight
disadvantage to cognitive development. But family income and educational
level of the mother - factors pre-dating a father's departure - "are
generally much more significant in determining how well children
Mott, senior scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Human
Resource Research, has been following since birth 1,714 children - 537 of
them black - who are part of the ongoing National Longitudinal Survey of
Youth. Between ages five and eight, the children were given standardized
tests of math and reading skills, and their mothers a questionnaire on
behavior problems. Among the findings:
o The effects of father absence are largely gender-specific. White
boys are affected most, behaviorally and cognitively.
o For all children except black girls, regular access to a father
figure visits by the father or maternal remarriage or boyfriend -lessened
any harmful behavioral effects linked to an absent dad.
o Black girls show more behavior problems after father
o Except among hyperactive children, the emotional trauma of family
dissolution had no effect on intellectual development.
o In the 40 percent of father-absent homes, there were
long-standing maternal and family characteristics known to be linked with
cognitive and possibly behavioral problems - from smoking during
pregnancy and lack of prenatal care, which may reflect lessened maternal
attentiveness, to lower educational levels.