- Study: An additional day per month of positive parenting by a nonresident father raises overall child health by roughly 10% one year after birth. Tweet This
- "Frequent father visits allow for greater parental time for caregiving and supervision, and for information gathering about child health and economic needs." Tweet This
When it comes to child well-being, just how much is a biological father’s time worth—particularly for children in fragile families headed by lone mothers? Economics professors Marlon R. Tracey and Solomon W. Polachek sought to answer that question, and more specifically, to determine "the causal impact of nonresident father-involvement on child health,” by using a sample of unmarried parents from the first two waves of the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study. In their study published this January in the Journal of Health Economics, they found that babies born to unmarried mothers who looked like their fathers at birth had better health outcomes one year later. The reason for the health boost is that non-resident fathers spent more time with babies who resembled them (an average of 2.5 additional days per month)—perhaps because child resemblance signals to an unmarried father, who may be uncertain about paternity, that a child is really his.
Dr. Tracey, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, recently discussed the study, "If Looks Could Heal: Child Health and Paternal Investment," with IFS via email. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Alysse ElHage: How many single-mother families ended up being in your final sample and how did you determine whether an infant looked like his or her father at birth?
Marlon Tracey: We used the Fragile Family and Child Wellbeing survey to follow children born to parents from large U.S. cities. Our analysis focuses on 715 unmarried and non-cohabiting parents one year after birth. The survey asked both parents at birth in separate and private interviews to say who their baby looks like. We claim father-child resemblance exists if both parents see at least partial resemblance to the father. Otherwise, there’s no resemblance to the father if both parents see no likeness in looks.
Alysse ElHage: You found that a non-resident father typically spends an average of 2.5 more days per month with a child that resembles him at birth compared to a father whose child does not resemble him. Although that does not sound like a lot of time—maybe an extra weekend—just that little bit of extra time appears to impact child health that first year in a big way. How much of an impact on child health does this extra time with dad result in for a child?
Marlon Tracey: We find that an additional day per month of positive parenting by a nonresident father raises overall child health by roughly 10% one year after birth. To put this in context, a typical visiting biological father spending nearly an extra week per month can have the same health impact as having a social father (mother’s new partner) present in the household. The 10% reflects an improvement in a combination of health indicators: asthma attacks, health care visits (to the ER, or to a doctor for illness), and mother’s assessment of the child’s overall health. We utilized all health indicators available from the survey for empirical analysis. In all cases, we find a father’s time ameliorates the health of a child.
Alysse ElHage: How do you explain this boost in child health from a father's extra time?
Marlon Tracey: How a child looks acts as a cue to fathers (especially those with low time-investment to begin with) to make additional visits. As we report in the paper, “…frequent father visits allow for greater parental time for caregiving and supervision, and for information gathering about child health and economic needs.”
"We hope single moms see...that it’s worth facilitating greater father-child bonding time whenever possible. In this sense, they can choose to be gateways to better child outcomes, rather than gatekeepers."
Alysse ElHage: What’s interesting is that although a non-resident father invests more in the relationship with an infant who looks like him, this does not necessarily mean he invests more income in terms of child support.
Marlon Tracey: Yes, that’s right. It does not necessarily imply more income being provided to the child. Indeed, we find no strong evidence supporting a higher probability or amount of financial support for those children resembling the father.
Alysse ElHage: What else does a father's investment in positive parenting include, other than extra time per month with the child?
Marlon Tracey: We considered father investment in several forms: positive parenting time, financial support, in-kind support (diapers, food, medicine etc.), and participation in shared parental tasks (e.g. running errands or looking after the child when mom needs to do other things). We find in-kind support and involvement in shared tasks are greater for children resembling the father. However, we find a much stronger and meaningful impact on father’s time.
Alysse ElHage: You included fathers who were incarcerated or had died in the study. What did you find and how did this boost your overall conclusions regarding the positive impact of a father's time on child health?
Marlon Tracey: We find that resemblance to the father has no impact on child health when the father is dead or incarcerated. This makes sense if resemblance only acts as a signal to fathers to be more involved. But deceased or incarcerated fathers cannot be more involved, so there should be no effect on child health. This finding supports that paternal investment is what explains why a newborn’s looks matter to his/her health one year later (when the non-resident father is alive and free).
Alysse ElHage: The study only looked at the first year of the child’s life. Why is that? And do you think if you had looked at say, the first five years (or longer), you might have found less father investment in the child, and that this might have had an impact on child health outcomes?
Marlon Tracey: As we reported in the paper, “we focus on the first year of birth because that period is crucial for a nonresident father to create and maintain a bond with a child.” Otherwise, as prior studies show, nonresident fathers may have low or decreasing involvement over time. And that’s because, for unmarried, nonresident fathers, closeness to the mother is most likely to deteriorate after the first year, affecting involvement with the child. If the positive impact we find for the first year holds true for later child years, then I think the decreasing involvement in later years would be associated with poorer child health outcomes.
Alysse ElHage: What are the implications of this study in terms of policies and programs aimed at boosting child well-being in fragile (father-absent) families?
Marlon Tracey: Appropriate policies for encouraging positive parenting time, such as parenting classes and health education, could be targeted at nonresident fathers to achieve improvements in child health. Also, greater earnings via job training, for example, may enhance their ability to make visits or provide time. These policies would be more effective for fathers with relatively low time-investment since they are the ones most responsive to resemblance.
Alysse ElHage: These findings are not only important for non-resident fathers but also single moms, who are really the gatekeepers in terms of how much access a father often has with a child. What do you hope single moms will take away from your study?
Marlon Tracey: Nonresident fathers are sometimes marginalized for their relatively low contributions. But our study suggests that their involvement certainly aids child development, at least within the first year of birth. Therefore, we hope single moms see this merely as evidence that it’s worth facilitating greater father-child bonding time whenever possible. In this sense, they can choose to be gateways to better child outcomes, rather than gatekeepers.