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 do."
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 visits.
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.