Directions for Research

Thirty years' of active research has advanced understanding of the contributions that fathers make to the lives of their children and elucidated the wide variability that characterizes how fathers perceive and fulfill their roles in families. However, any effort to gain a full picture of fathering functions and their implications for children's development and for policy is hindered by several features of this research:

  • Research on fathering is fragmented, with separate strands of inquiry focusing on the effects of quality of father involvement in intact/father-present families, on the economic and psychological ramifications of father absence, and, most recently, on fathers who have primary or sole custody of their children.

  • Much of the research on fathers has suffered from the absence of a clear conceptualization of fathering roles, as distinct from the standard of mothering roles.

  • Minimal attention has been paid to the context within which fathers fulfill or fail to fulfill their responsibilities towards their families. Research, as a result, has little to offer towards the understanding of the factors within families, communities, social institutions, workplaces, and the broader economy and culture that support or undermine fathering for different groups in differing circumstances.

  • Research has failed to address several of the most compelling policy issues that bear on fathering. Indeed, beyond child support enforcement,



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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop Directions for Research Thirty years' of active research has advanced understanding of the contributions that fathers make to the lives of their children and elucidated the wide variability that characterizes how fathers perceive and fulfill their roles in families. However, any effort to gain a full picture of fathering functions and their implications for children's development and for policy is hindered by several features of this research: Research on fathering is fragmented, with separate strands of inquiry focusing on the effects of quality of father involvement in intact/father-present families, on the economic and psychological ramifications of father absence, and, most recently, on fathers who have primary or sole custody of their children. Much of the research on fathers has suffered from the absence of a clear conceptualization of fathering roles, as distinct from the standard of mothering roles. Minimal attention has been paid to the context within which fathers fulfill or fail to fulfill their responsibilities towards their families. Research, as a result, has little to offer towards the understanding of the factors within families, communities, social institutions, workplaces, and the broader economy and culture that support or undermine fathering for different groups in differing circumstances. Research has failed to address several of the most compelling policy issues that bear on fathering. Indeed, beyond child support enforcement,

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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop there is little consensus about the range of policy questions that bear directly on fathering and so need to be considered in terms of their effects on fathers and fathering. These shortcomings provided a departure point for the participants ' discussion of promising directions for the next generation of research on fathers and fathering. The discussions clustered around the importance of four factors: (1) adopting a life-span perspective on fathering, (2) approaching fathering as a negotiated role, (3) considering the community context of fathering, and (4) contributing to the development of innovative programs and policies for fathers. Fathers have been studied primarily as they affect their children 's development, with minimal attention paid to the place of fathering in men's own lives. In this context, the increasing variation in the timing of men's becoming fathers may hold significant implications for their interest and ability to be highly engaged with their children. Many men first become fathers soon after they marry and at the same time that they are launching careers. Increasingly, however, men are becoming fathers before or long after they first become husbands and workers, sometimes in the context of a second (or subsequent) marriage. Research that examines the influence of the timing of fatherhood in the trajectory of men's lives and in the context of other roles that men fulfill was suggested by the workshop participants as a very worthwhile direction for future study, as suggested by some early work along these lines. Preliminary evidence from longitudinal research suggests that high levels of engagement in fathering benefits not only children, but also affects fathers' later roles (Snarey, 1993). For example, men at midlife who reported that they were currently involved in mentoring younger adults in their workplaces and neighborhoods were more likely than less involved men to report that they had been very involved in fathering during their own children's childhood and adolescent years. Perhaps fathering stimulates subsequent social involvement and nurturing of younger generations. It was also suggested that assuming the role of father may offer a powerful source of motivation for some men to also assume constructive and enduring commitments to occupational and marital roles. Studies aimed at elucidating the effects of fathering on male development hold the potential to expand notions of why people should care, as a society, about men's engagement as fathers. Research in this area may also provide important clues regarding the aspects of fathering that men find most rewarding and that, in turn, may suggest important ways to promote their involvement with their children. The intersection between men's occupational status and their fathering roles was noted frequently at the workshop, primarily in the context of the

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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop negative effects of unemployment on fathering. Research examining evidence that dates back to the Great Depression has documented the profound negative impact that the absence of work has on men's interactions with their children (Elder and Caspi, 1988). Researchers have recently begun to examine how the conditions and characteristics of work affect fathering on behalf of employed fathers (Greenberger and O'Neil, 1991; O'Neil, 1991; Repetti, 1989; Repetti, 1994). Further understanding of the dimensions of work that affect fathering could provide important guidance for workplace interventions aimed at alleviating the pressures that can spill over into negative father-child interactions. One participant called specifically for research into corporate practices that contribute to “father friendly” work environments. Fathers' roles will only be fully appreciated to the extent that their own development is examined in concert with the development of their wives and their children. The intersection of fathering and mothering was a particularly prominent topic of discussion. The amount and nature of fathering that children receive was portrayed by the workshop participants as a product of the interplay between men's and women 's roles in families. Men do not just assume the role of father; they negotiate it, either in partnership or in conflict with their children 's mothers. Much remains to be understood about how mothers and fathers negotiate their respective roles as parents. How does the quality of the relationship between mother and father affect fathers' engagement with their children? What implicit and explicit roles are played by other family members in this process? What perceptions and experiences shape mothers' attitudes about the competence and reliability of fathers and fathers ' attitudes about their roles? The participants agreed that fathering cannot be adequately understood apart from family systems, from prevailing attitudes about gender roles, and, in effect, from mothering. The special case of families with a disabled child was also discussed as an area of research that would benefit from approaching mothers and fathers as partners in child rearing. Research on these families has neglected fathers' roles and placed mothers at the center of concern. As a consequence, virtually nothing is known about fathers ' relationships with disabled children. How do fathers view their role in the care of a disabled child? What individual and contextual factors contribute to more or less close emotional attachments between fathers and their disabled children? What kinds of assistance from formal and informal sources would fathers find most helpful? Although some of these questions are being studied, mothers are typically the sole data source. Direct interviews with fathers may reveal major differences between a mother's perception of the father's role and the father's outlook on what he should be doing. The discussion of the role of “old heads” in inner-city communities

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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop raised a number of questions about the community context within which fathering roles are defined, transmitted, and either supported or undermined. It has long been understood that fathering is a role that is passed from one generation to the next. The mechanisms through which this intergenerational transmission occurs, however, are not well understood. The workshop discussion revealed the importance of the social organization of communities for this process of mentoring fathers and raised many questions about sources of fathering images for today's young men. How, for example, are community norms about “good fathering” established and communicated? Children who are reared in father absent households often grow up without models of fathering, yet this aspect of fathers' absences has been neglected in the empirical emphasis on the economic and more immediate losses that children experience in these situations. It is for these children that salient community norms and non-parental male role models are likely to be particularly important. And in two-parent families, how does the degree of cooperation that parents demonstrate in child rearing affect children's subsequent ability as adults to form strong spousal ties and to function well as coparents? More generally, the role of social context as a source of variation in how fathers view their role in the family, in how they behave, and in the nature of the contributions that they make to their families is richly deserving of study. Why do some fathers in intact families become highly engaged with their children while others spend the vast majority of their time away from their children? Why do some divorced fathers feel a continuing responsibility for their offspring, while others seem to divorce their whole family? Why do some men living in impoverished environments remain committed to and involved with their families, while others succumb to the pressures that push men away from their families? What are the implications of answers to these questions for the construction of policies that will encourage rather than hinder fathers' sustained involvement with their children? The lack of knowledge about programs that foster fathers' sustained and active involvement with their children was noted throughout the workshop. A central tension concerned the benefits of approaches that emphasize men's role as workers and focus on employment opportunities, compared with those that emphasize more motivational dimensions of fathering and focus on fostering men's confidence and commitment to the fathering role. One participant suggested that men be asked directly about the factors that have helped or hindered their involvement with their children and that this information be used to design “father-driven” interventions. The need for much more systematic evaluation research on policies pertaining to divorce, child support, and custodial arrangements was also discussed. What practices, for example, promote the effective establish-

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America's Fathers and Public Policy: Report of a Workshop ment of paternity for different groups? Sonenstein's work indicates the importance of offering fathers the opportunity to acknowledge paternity in the context of swift enforcement for noncompliance (Sonenstein et al., 1993), yet the direction of policy is towards mandatory mechanisms. Particularly needed is research that moves beyond documenting low rates of establishing and enforcing child support orders and aims to elucidate the economic and noneconomic deterrents to an effective child support policy. The workshop participants were also interested in seeing more research on the use of mediation and its ramifications for postdivorce relations among mothers, fathers, and their children. A general observation concerned the focus of public policy on men's economic contributions to their families, rather than assessments of fathers' behavior towards their children in evaluations of policies governing paternity establishment, custodial arrangements, and child support enforcement. In sum, multiple avenues for research on fatherhood were suggested by the workshop participants, ranging from foundational research on the influence of fathering on fathers to evaluation research aimed at explaining effective approaches to supporting fathers' engagement with their children. The common theme of the discussion was that it is only when fathers are studied in the context of their own development and the context of their families, communities, and jobs that a full appreciation of the factors that influence their self-perceptions, behaviors, and level of engagement as fathers can be gained.