We know from a large body of research that fathers are important for the well-being of families. But exactly how do fathers positively affect their children? Is it mainly from the material support that fathers (and another income) can often provide, or does a father’s very presence have an effect? A new study in Social Service Review seems to indicate the latter. A team of researchers looked specifically on how father involvement affected adolescent behavior, which is a good indicator of future well-being and success, over a 10-year period starting at age 5.
A simulation based on their data indicates that increasing father involvement among lower socio-economic status (SES) families reduces gaps in behavior outcomes (e.g. aggression, depression, delinquency) with higher SES families by 30–50% for children with nonresident fathers and by 80% for children with resident fathers. The study shows the effects are long lasting, with a father’s earlier life presence having a significant impact on latter adolescent behavior. In other words, kids who are having trouble in their teens often lacked a fatherly presence earlier in their lives, not only during their teen years. Cash support—formal or informal—had little effect. It was the social engagement of the fathers that made the big difference.
Our own research on social service agencies highlights the effects of personal relationships. Many people suffer trauma from relationship instability, including the absence of fathers, that goes back to childhood. This often hobbles people for the rest of their lives. Material support certainly helps, but the trauma makes it hard for people to have good executive function. Family patterns learned or observed in childhood may also make it more difficult for people to break dysfunctional habits. Often, people have trouble managing their lives and end up unable to handle the resources they do have, though personal, relational assistance from social service agencies can help people right themselves.
Unfortunately, there is still widespread ignorance about the importance of nonmaterial factors. Funding Agencies, such as the influential Gates Foundation, overlook the influence of families.
A recent article in Time magazine on the struggles of high school students in Benton Harbor, Michigan failed to mention family factors, much less the role of fathers. The author recommends only changing school funding, even though the amount of funding has little effect on how well students do in school.
Or take this 2019 article in the Atlantic by “public policy incubator” Nick Hanauer, who argues that inequality must be battled first before trying to better schools. But his underlying cause is material, focusing on distributions of incomes and the policies that affect it, while ignoring family and relationship factors. Teachers, on the frontlines of adolescent behavior problems, know that issues are often related to family life at home.
The evidence for the dominant influence of family has long been present, going back to the 1966 Coleman report, which, as a study in 2016 concluded, “is as convincing today as it was 50 years ago.” Susan Mayer’s 1997 book, What Money Can’t Buy, shows it is not family income but family practice (often unrelated to income) that increases children’s life chances. A supportive community, such as neighbors or churches, can also play a key role.
Ultimately, too much of our public policy is still driven by a materialistic bias. While material need is important, we must be better at incorporating other basic human needs in our plans and programs, like sociality or meaning. These are things that give people stability and the ability to participate more widely in society and eventually help others.
Sociality and meaning are more difficult to provide than material needs. One can provide a shelter for the homeless, but the deeper issues many homeless men and women face, such as alienation from communities and their families, are more challenging to address. Agencies and ministries that provide personal assistance can offer the necessary tools, motivations, and aspirations, from the practical to the spiritual.
One has to look at society as a web of relationships, with most occurring through family and community, but some through institutions. The quality of these relationships and the practices and values that orient them are key to the well-being of people and to the wider civic culture. This culture is not an easy thing to manipulate. We can be “nudged” to do things, but it is hard to tell people to be more responsible or giving in their relationships, especially in a society that is torn between individualism and commitment, as Robert Bellah and colleagues wrote over three decades ago in their seminal book on American society, Habits of the Heart. Since then, our media and technologies have isolated and pulled us even further apart.
This is where relational work comes in. People who are struggling financially or who are facing abuse or neglect in families often find themselves seeking help from nonprofits and/or religious institutions. If done well, these organizations can provide the kind of social influence that people need to become better family members and can provide necessary services to those around them, especially children that suffer from a lack of good relationships. By providing mentoring, counseling, coaching, home visits, parenting programs, or group work, nonprofits and religious institutions are able to offer more relational and financial stability to households where chaos inflicts harm on children’s development.
Some large government-run programs like Head Start work partly through relational work. Head Start essentially takes kids away from family for part of the day and puts them in a different structural and relational environment. It’s a form of paternalism, and though this is generally a bad word among social policy experts, some recognize that a little paternalism “may not be such a bad thing,” in the words of social policy expert Isabell Sawhill in her book The Forgotten Americans. She argues against the often-proposed Universal Benefit Income (UBI), which assumes that what people need most is simply money. While financial assistance is often needed, for the long-term, she argues that many require “services and support” in areas of family, education, and work.
Paternalism, of course, comes from the Latin word for “father”—not only referring to a biological status, but more importantly, to a relationship. The fragile nature of relationships in our society, both within the family and without, is at the root of many of our social problems. The authors of this new study on father involvement encourage programs, like early childhood education classes, to focus on integrating fathers and urge state agencies to consider father involvement itself as an official form of child support. Re-connecting people to their families and communities should be part of our policy arsenal.
Michael Jindra is a cultural anthropologist at Boston University. His research topics include lifestyle diversity, economic inequality and anti-poverty relational work. He blogs on lifestyle diversity here.