Ottawa Citizen

Thursday 4 February 1999

What good is Dad? scientists wonder

Fred Tasker and Randy Boswell
The Ottawa Citizen

Does daddy matter?

Suddenly, social scientists are not so sure. After decades of routine assumptions about the father being an irreplaceable role model and confidence-builder -- if not always the breadwinner -- experts are questioning whether he even needs to be around to raise emotionally healthy children.

The debate was sparked last year when three American sociologists studied 11 years' worth of U.S. data and concluded that -- even in intact families with both mother and father present -- "the influence of fathers is relatively minor."

In the latest round of debate, other sociologists argue that fathers do little for children that mothers cannot do.

"Mothers and fathers are interchangeable," argues June Stephenson, author of the 1997 study, The Two-Parent Family is Not the Best. "Single mothers can do a really good job with their kids." But Rutgers sociologist David Poponoe counters that fathers have a unique role in the family: "They help their sons develop self-control and empathy toward others. They teach their daughters trust and intimacy and how to relate to men."

The daddy question is considered a crucial one at time when 40 per cent of U.S. children do not live with their biological fathers.

In Canada, the majority of Canadian children -- 4.8 million under the age of 15 -- lived in two-parent families in 1996. But there were 826,000 children living with single mothers in 1996 and 117,000 children living with single fathers.

"Children can thrive in a single-parent family," allows Bob Glossop, director of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family. "But if kids have two adults who are absolutely crazy about them, then they are really lucky."

Mr. Glossop suggests researchers are on shaky ground if they draw too strong a distinction between the roles played by mothers and fathers. "Men and women both can provide for their kids, nurture them, care for them and demonstrate affection for them," he says.

There is a wide range of studies in both Canada and the U.S. concluding that children without fathers are more likely to do poorly in school, get in trouble with the law and have children of their own out of wedlock. A 1996 survey of 22,000 children by Statistics Canada showed that those raised by single mothers are more likely to exhibit problems ranging from threatening others to hyperactivity.

"Can single mothers or single fathers raise wonderful children? Yes, they do it every day," says Mark Genuis, director of the Calgary-based National Foundation for Family Research and Education. "But is it more difficult to do than it is for two-parent families? Yes, it is much more difficult."

If nothing else, long-neglected fatherhood is suddenly a hot topic for social scientists, who now admit massive gaps in their understanding of the subject.

A recent flashpoint was a major study that appeared in a special "Men in Families" issue of Demography, the journal of the Population Association of America. Three sociologists reviewed interviews with nearly 5,000 children nationwide from 1976 through 1987. They concluded that within intact families, children whose fathers were closely involved in their lives did better economically and educationally and were less likely to become delinquent.

But it was a tepid endorsement: "We find consistent but weak evidence that fathers influence their children's transition to adulthood," they wrote. "The effects are admittedly small."

And they went on: "In an era of high divorce and declining rates of marriage, the role of parent may not be a permanent fixture of men's lives."

The debate has flared at a time when many fathers are groping for direction about how to play effective roles in their children's lives. More and more major groups -- the Promise Keepers, the Southern Baptist Convention and others -- are urging men to be better, more responsible, fathers.

But many women suspect that the men are trying to resuscitate fatherhood primarily to reassert husbands' old dominance over wives.

Copyright 1998 Ottawa Citizen