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All About Fathers

Are fathers important to their children? At first glance the question seems to call for a simple affirmative response: of course they are! Yet this question, or rather a significantly different variant of it - are fathers essential to their children's well-being and psychological growth - is one of the most contested and politicized topics in psychology, family studies and mental heath today. In this issue of the NYU Child Study Center Letter, we address this and other questions, the answers to which may hold more practical importance to fathers, mothers and children. Essential or not, what role can fathers play in their children's lives? What interferes with or facilitates their involvement? And in families with two parents, what role does the quality of the marital rela- tionship (or its equivalent) play in the involvement of fathers with their children?

Are fathers essential or (just) important? Two views

The essentialist point of view A number of social scientists argue that fathers play an essential, irreplaceable role in the lives of their children and that this role is biologically based. Several social scientists,1,2 drawing heavily on ethology and evolutionary psychology, believe that research has established that males and females are different in a variety of ways that affect parenting. For instance, according to this point of view, because men are physically stronger, more aggressive and more inclined to take risks than women, they are essential as the main protectors of their families from physical threat. It is also argued that, across human history, men have been the key provi- ders of resources for their families, although these authors acknowledge the growing trend of dual-earner families and increasing income parity for wo- men and men.

The essential-father proponents quote research to support the assertion that the following functions are best per- formed by biological fathers married to mothers and living in the home:

Fathers are said to provide role models for their sons to learn how to be men; girls are said to need fathers in order to know how to relate to men.

Fathers are viewed as better able than mothers to constrain and correct boys headed towards violence and other anti-social behaviors.

Fathers are seen as better able to teach sons and daughters assertiveness and achievement orientation, and provide better formative experiences for daughters to develop the capacity for heterosexual intimacy, trust and even femininity.

Fathers are also said to play differently. They are more physical; they challenge and foster independence more than mothers, whose play is characterized as constrained by worries of potential danger. Young children are said to prefer their fathers' form of play.

In summary, proponents of the essential- father point of view see the parenting contributions of mothers and fathers as linked to their sex, with mothers generally emphasizing connection, safety, and care, and fathers emphasizing autonomy, action, risk-taking and following rules. It is further argued that heterosexual mar- riage is the most natural and propitious social arrangement within which children can reap the full benefits of their biological fathers' unique contributions. They be- lieve that single, never-married mothers (by choice or circumstance) divorced or wido- wed mothers, heterosexuals living together but not married, homosexual couples with children, other same-sex parenting dyads (such as mother-grandmother), and blended families (with one biological and one step-parent) are inferior versions of family and potentially destructive develop- mental contexts for children. In response to research which has shown that children with stepparents are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems than are children from intact families, the essential-father proponents conclude that stepfathers are ineffective because they can never form the bond that biological fathers experience with their children.

By: Peter Fraenkel, Ph.D. - NYU Child Study Center -

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