Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday, June 3, 2000

When will Dad man the home front?

By BETTINA ARNDT Sydney Morning Herald

But where are the fathers in all this? What of the families where Mum works long hours but Dad is able to be home more, to provide the care children need? Well, for a start there aren't many of them. When mothers work long hours, most often fathers do, too. Sociologist Michael Bittman, from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW, analysed data from the 1997 Time Use survey and found when mothers work 40 hours or more per week, their partners' weekly average is almost 49 hours.

But there are well-functioning fathers, partnered by over-working wives, who choose to work shorter hours to care for their children. Graeme Russell, professor of psychology at Macquarie University and an international authority on fathering, believes children would do well if highly motivated men cut back working hours to care for them. "I can't see why they can't be as positive and as competent as women can."

But Amato's and Booth's research finds that this scenario is often associated with problems. Fathers in this circumstance frequently had behavioural problems such as drug or alcohol addictions, or else faced employment issues like job loss.

Similarly, Toby Parcel and Elizabeth Menaghan from Ohio State University found negative effects on children's reading and maths skills when fathers worked part-time and concluded this may be due to the fact that fathers are often in this circumstance not by choice, but due to other problems and receive little social support for this role.

So the evidence suggests that in our present culture so few well-functioning fathers work part-time that their positive impact is lost in the negative effects of the problem fathers.

A recent study on children's feelings about their parents' work published in the book Ask The Children by Ellen Galinsky (William Morrow, 1999) provides more evidence of this swamping effect. Galinsky found children with fathers working part-time or not at all saw their fathers as less encouraging of their learning, less likely to participate in their lives and poorer at making them feel important and loved than children with fathers working full-time.

The problem-dad concept may explain the startling finding to emerge from the Amato/Booth research that having fathers more involved in the household when the children are young has a negative impact on children's achievement.

The reverse was found to be true when the children are teenagers. Their research also showed that paternal income (but not maternal income) was linked to younger children's achievement. "It may be that fathers are able to stimulate young children's achievement by earning a high level of income (and hence, spending few hours at home). In contrast, fathers may best stimulate the achievement of adolescents through providing guidance, advice, supervision and emotional support (which requires spending longer hours at home)."

This suggests that the arrangement still most common in Australia where a father's full-time work efforts enable a mother to work part-time and care for her children is likely to be most beneficial to children's school success, at least while they are young.

But this doesn't let men off the hook. There's also evidence that the more time children, and particularly boys, spend with their fathers, the better they do in academic achievement and IQ tests. Plus children make it clear they resent their fathers' work demands even more than their mothers' (perhaps because fathers tend to work longer hours).

Galinsky found one in five children agreed that mothers put their needs for success ahead of their children with fathers, the proportion is one in three.

So there's a strong case to be made that fathers who wish their children to do well should consider cutting back working hours, particularly once the children are too old for paid child care, given that their mother is then more likely to be in the workforce as well. The real benefits of paternal involvement with younger children may yet emerge when this path is chosen by more well-functioning men with wives working to support them.

Copyright © 2000. The Sydney Morning Herald