The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

Exploring What Matters

A study finds that adolescents’ mattering to fathers predicts problem behaviors.

Current Chilean President Bachelet as an Adolescent with her Father. How did he matter?
Children can grow up in various family configurations. They may be raised by a biological mother and biological father in a nuclear family. They may grow up with a biological mother and stepfather. They may be brought up by a maternal grandmother, with some assistance from other family members. In some cultural contexts, they may be raised in polygynous households, sharing a father’s investments with children born to different mothers. Across the various family contexts in which children are raised, a central question is: what are the effects of these variable families on children?

Toward addressing that question, much of the literature has compared a set of outcomes (e.g., educational, emotional, behavioral) of children raised in households with both biological parents versus households with a biological mother and stepfather. A smaller literature, mostly relying upon growth data, has addressed how children fare within polygynous compared with monogamous households. Rather than dive into those bodies of research here, instead let’s turn to a rare study that has asked about children’s perceptions of their relationships to fathers, and we will see whether that matters.

In a 2009 study published in the journal “Fathering” by Clorinda Schenck, Sanford Braver and colleagues, they recruited 133 adolescents aged 11-14 in Arizona and California. Their focal participants were about half female, as well as about half Mexican-American and half Anglo-American in ethnicity. They lived with their mother and a stepfather, with the duration living with stepfathers of about five years on average.

The researchers had the adolescent children in these families complete a 7-item “mattering” inventory to both their stepfather and nonresidential biological father, assessing a children’s perception of whether s/he perceived being the object of concern, for example. The child also completed several other inventories measuring internalizing and externalizing behavior. The children’s mother, stepfather and two teachers also provided information on the child’s behavior.

The researchers discovered that mattering to mothers was positively associated with mattering to a stepfather, but there was no relationship between mattering to a nonresidential biological father and either mattering to mother or stepfather. Mattering to nonresidential biological fathers was negatively associated with internalizing problems. Mattering to stepfathers was negatively associated with child- and stepfather-reported internalizing and externalizing problems. Among teachers’ reports, an interaction suggested that mattering to either stepfathers or nonresidential biological fathers was associated with reduced externalizing problems—it did not matter which father figure.

Relatively few studies have asked children about their perceptions of variable family configurations as means of assessing the impacts these have on children. This study on adolescent children’s mattering is thus an important contribution: it shows that children’s perceptions of mattering are associated with internalizing and externalizing problems, but that at least by teachers’ reports of behavior it was not important whether a child’s mattering was linked to a stepfather or nonresidential biological father. More work is needed exploring what children of various ages think about being raised within blended households of step- and biological parents. A 1990s Australian report showed that most kids positively rated their stepfathers, but also identified both positive (more family members) and negative (divided loyalties) of being raised in stepfamilies. Indeed, if we extend the discussion to a wider array of family configurations, what do children perceive about being raised within a monogamous vs. polygynous household? Or to take an anthropological classic—Malinowski’s foundational research on Trobriand Islanders from the early 20th century—what might children think about being raised in matrilineal societies in which their mother’s brother might have a more central role in their upbringing than their biological father? Does that matter to kids?

As much as we want to know whether fathers matter, it also makes sense to find out how children perceive the family world, including fathers, and whether that matters.

References: Schenck, C. E., Braver, S. L., Wolchik, S. A., Saenz, D., Cookston, J. T., & Fabricius, W. V. (2009). Relations between mattering to step- and non-residential fathers and adolescent mental health. Fathering, 7, 70-90.

The Australian report can be found here: http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/fm1/fm31/fm31kf.html

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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