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The Many Meanings of Family and the Role of Fathers


The idea that there's one definition of family is changing. Families are becoming more diverse. There are single career as well as dual career families, two parent as well as single parent families, "intact" as well as blended families, married as well as unmarried cohabiting parents, heterosexual as well as same sex parents, single race as well as interracial families, two- as well as three-generational families.

What's the ideal family for raising well-adjusted kids?

Social scientists have different answers to this question. This issue is one of the most controversial and politicized topics in psychology, family studies and mental health today. We'll present contrasting views about a basic question: Is the so-called "traditional" nuclear family and in particular, the presence of a biological father absolutely essential for the well-being of children?

YES , state a number of writers, quoting research to support their position (Blankenhorn, l995, Popenoe, 1996). They believe that the following functions are best performed by biological fathers married to biological mothers who live together:

Fathers provide role models for their sons to learn how to be a man; girls need fathers to learn how to relate to a man.

Fathers are better able than mothers to constrain and correct boys headed towards violence and other antisocial behaviors.

Fathers teach sons and daughters better lessons than mothers regarding assertiveness and achievement, and provide better formative experiences for daughters in terms of developing the capacity for heterosexual intimacy, trust and even femininity.

Fathers play differently with young children - they are more physical; they challenge and foster independence more than mothers, and young children prefer 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, relatedness, safety and care, and fathers emphasizing autonomy, action, risk-taking and following rules.

Is the presence of a biological father absolutely essential to the well-being of children?

NO, say the critics of the essential-father point of view, who believe that fathers are certainly important, but not necessarily essential. In fact, they believe that diverse forms of family can provide healthy environments for children (Silverstein & Auerbach, l999; Stacey, 1996). According to this point of view, it's not who's part of the family but what the family provides to the children in their care. These proponents of what we'll call the "diverse family" perspective make the following points:

They believe that the impact of gender differences on parenting is not supported by research. A meta-analysis of 171 studies comparing mothers' and fathers' parenting found few significant differences (Lytton & Romney, l991). The research cited by the essential -father proponents can be interpreted in a number of ways, and some of the differences observed may be due to causes other than the lack of the presence of a biological father. An example: a finding that children achieve more in school when their fathers are more involved in general or when they directly participate more in educational activities such as homework could be due to fathers' positive influence; or to fathers getting more involved when children show talent and ability in the first place; or to having two parents rather than one parent in the home - and therefore less stress on the parents and more parenting to go around for children; or to greater financial security which results in greater access to educational (and other) resources. Similarly, the point that many young children may prefer playing with their fathers rather than their mothers may be due to different play styles or to children seeing their fathers less, so fathers are a more novel stimulus.

Critics of the essential-father viewpoint often argue that this view often ignores or minimizes the impact of more important variables Ð for instance, that the many negative effects on children attributed to fatherlessness may have much more to do with the fact that such children typically suffer more severe poverty than those with two parents. In addition it is unclear whether it is mothers' or fathers' involvement that is critical to children, because increased mother involvement typically accompanies increased father involvement. The critics also believe that stepfathers are unfairly blamed for the impact on children of stressors that predate their arrival, such as the marital conflict that may have preceded divorce, or the impact of a significant drop in socioeconomic status, relocation and loss of friends, change of school, and other disruptions when biological fathers do not fulfill their financial responsibilities following divorce.

Some conclusions about the debate

Both points of view agree that what fathers typically do is quite important for their children. Whether fathering skills are entirely learned or have some biological basis, it appears that responsible parenting figures other than the biological father can learn and enact those behaviors with children.

An open-minded review of the existing literature suggests that parenting roles are interchangeable, that neither mothers nor fathers are unique or essential. What the research (Amato & Rivera, l996) suggests is that children do best when they have a consistent, caring relationship with at least one responsible adult and that optimal outcomes for children are associated with a particular cluster of parental behaviors including:

  • showing affection
  • being responsive to children's needs
  • encouraging children to do well
  • giving every day assistance
  • providing supervision
  • exercising noncoercive discipline
  • serving as role models of positive behaviors

In sum, the mental health and well-being of children may simply be dependent on the presence or absence of a number of variables that have a powerful impact on children's lives: economic well-being, access to educational resources within and outside the family and encouragement to achieve, an involved parent or parents, and absence of destructive conflict between the parents.

About the Authors

Peter Fraenkel, Ph.D., is Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine, and Director of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP®) for couples at NYU Child Study Center. Dr. Fraenkel is also Associate Professor of Psychology, Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, City University of New York, Director of the Center for Work and the Family, Ackerman Institute for the Family, and in private practice. Dr. Frankel has conducted research and published extensively in the areas of couples and time.