Do I Have to Live with my Kids for Them to Reap the Benefits?
Last week I heard from dads across the spectrum. One emailed me saying my last posting was "BS," because I was just "feeding into the same old stereotypes of the 1960s" by reporting on research that shows that dads do only 30% of the housework and childcare. My colleague at the Greater Good Science Center Jeremy Adam Smith wrote here about the amazing biological changes which can take place in men when they become fathers. And a divorced dad (I'll call him D.D.) worried that his kids wouldn't reap the same benefits of his involvement because he doesn't live with them. He and their mother have decided that their kids should live in one house—their mother's—instead of going back and forth between houses, so while D.D. sounds pretty involved to me, I understand his concern that his influence is limited.
When I look at the research, I don't think D.D. need worry. Fathers who don't live with their children can have just as big an impact on the well-being and success of their children as residential fathers—if they maintain strong ties with their kids. Unless the relationship between parents is marked by extremely high conflict, kids consistently do better following a divorce when they are able to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents.
D.D. gets along well with his kids' mother, whom he considers his parenting partner—this is key. The best predictor of the quality of a father's relationship with his kids is the quality of his relationship with their mother. When parents who live apart can cooperate effectively, father-child contact tends to increase, which in turn predicts better parenting and stronger ties between non-residential fathers and their children.
It also matters a lot HOW dads parent. Children do better across the board when their fathers are involved in a way that is not too permissive and not too strict. These "authoritative" fathers are engaged in:
- Setting and enforcing rules and providing consistent discipline
- Monitoring and supervising their kids
- Helping with homework
- Providing advice and emotional support
- Praising children's accomplishments.
On the other hand, participating in "leisure activities"—like going out to dinner, buying kids things, or seeing movies together—does not tend to influence children's well-being. D.D. will do well to stay involved with the nitty-gritty of fathering instead of becoming someone who just takes the kids on weekend outings.
Last but certainly not least, one of the most important ways that non-residential fathers contribute to their children's development and well-being is to pay child support. The amount of child support received influences a child's:
- School success and cognitive test scores
- Social skills
- Emotional well-being
- Behavior problems
- Health and nutrition
The amount of child support paid by a non-residential father impacts children hugely, even after the influences of maternal income, frequency of contact between the father and child, and conflict between parents are taken into consideration.
What exactly is a "positively engaged father"?
A couple of weeks ago I summarized all the great benefits of having a "positively engaged father". What exactly does that mean? Researchers assess father engagement in a wide variety of ways, usually as a function of how much time a father spends doing things with his children. Father involvement also tends to be measured by assessing the quality of the father-child relationship. Can the relationship between a father and child be described as "sensitive, warm, close, friendly, supportive, intimate, nurturing, affectionate, encouraging, comforting, and accepting"? (Allen and Daly, 2007).
A broader conceptualization of fatherhood (Palkovitz, 1997) includes several different dimensions that dads can be positively involved (below). Good dads will draw from many of these different dimensions, though which ones dominate are likely to change over time as the developmental needs of his children change. Dads who want to become more positively involved with their children should try some of the following activities:
1. Talking with them and practicing being a good listener
2. Teaching them (role modeling, encouraging activities and interests)
3. Monitoring them (when they are with friends, doing homework)
4. Running errands with them
5. Participating in basic caregiving (feeding, bathing)
6. Engaging in shared interests (reading together, throwing a baseball, playing)
7. Simple being available to talk, drive, help
8. Planning with them (activities, birthdays)
9. Showing affection and love
10. Providing emotional support and encouraging them
Given this multitude of ways that a dad can be positively involved—none of which is contingent on co-residence—I think that D.D.'s positive influence is likely to be great!
Become a fan of Raising Happiness on Facebook.
Follow Christine Carter on Twitter
Subscribe to the Happiness Matters Podcast on iTunes.