The Times

May 21 2000

Children with father in family have a head start in life

Roger Dobson
The Sunday Times

YOUNG children whose fathers are regularly present are better learners, have higher self-esteem and fewer symptoms of depression than youngsters who live without their dads, according to a new study.

The research, based on interviews with more than 800 six-year-olds in America, also shows that those youngsters who see their father as supportive have a greater sense of social acceptance.

A separate study in a book published in Britain this week also suggests that boys adjust better after divorce when they live with their fathers rather than their mothers.

In the American study, Howard Dubowitz and his team looked at how children viewed their fathers and how their support was linked to how well they were doing.

"It clearly shows that a father's presence and involvement benefits the child," said Dubowitz. "We need to find ways to encourage the positive and supportive roles of fathers and father figures in the lives of their children."

Dubowitz, professor of paediatrics at the University of Baltimore, said: "Given all the permutations for what counts as family these days, when these kids describe having an adult male, usually their biological father, they were doing better.

"What we have is the strong suggestion that kids benefit from having a man around and they especially benefit if the man is loving and supportive. The $64,000 question is how we can engage these men and have them involved in their kids' lives."

He warned: "It also says something to the women; I see well-meaning, well-educated professional women who in subtle or not so subtle ways discourage men from being involved. In various ways mothers have unwittingly discouraged men. When, for example, both parents bring in kids to see the doctor there is an assumption that the woman has all the information, and not the father.

"These might seem like small things, but in an era when we are trying to get men to play bigger and better roles in family life, that kind of thing doesn't help."

In the book published this week, Professor Susan Golombok of City University in London reports that the more fathers become involved with their offspring, the more the children are likely to seek comfort from them.

"The few studies that have been carried out show that most single fathers are able to care for their children well," she said. "In fact, there is some evidence that after divorce, boys adjust better when they live with their father than with their mother.

"It seems that fathers are young children's preferred playmates, not just for boys but for girls as well. Nevertheless, mothers still spend more hours a week playing with children than do fathers."

Jim Parton, of the pressure group Families Need Fathers, said: "This confirms all sorts of other studies. The puzzle for us is why policy makers and the courts don't act more on these kinds of findings. Fathers want to engage more with their children but they are prevented from doing so.

"The situation for fathers has eased considerably over the past five years. But fathers do get second-class treatment. It is still nearly unheard of for fathers to have their children come to live with them when couples split up.

"It is a question of balance. Men and women complement each other - men teach children to be intrepid, while women teach them about the dangers. The man might encourage a child to go to the top of the tree, while the woman warns them to be careful not to fall off."

Professor Charlie Lewis, of Lancaster University, who is a leading expert on fathers, said there was confusion over the role of men in family life.

"Modern fathers are occasionally portrayed as new or even superdads, but more often the media spotlight shines on men as deadbeat dads, no more able to parent and support their children than they are to keep a steady job."

Additional reporting: Jack Grimston

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.