Mother knows best? Fathers missing in research about kids

Asking for only the primary carer’s views assumes that fathers have no major impact on their children’s health. Grant Potter

If we want to survey families to discover how the children are going, we usually have to ask an adult. It seems common sense to ask the “primary carer”, usually the mother, who knows the child the best. But does mother always know best or should we be asking the fathers as well?

The Victorian government has just published the results of a comprehensive survey of children’s mental health. The information on 3,370 randomly selected children, aged four to 12 years, is to be used to inform policy and design projects to prevent mental illness.

The research collects information on a range of factors so that the most important ones can be targeted. When researchers telephone a family, “the parent or carer who knows most about the child’s health and daily routine” is asked to complete the survey.

In the Victorian survey, 84% of those responding were mothers and about 13% were fathers. No problem here since mothers are much more likely than fathers to be doing the bulk of the care for children in this age group.

The difficulty arises when the research design assumes that the mother is the only important influence on the child. In this survey, it was the mother’s education, the mother’s general health and the mother’s mental health that were asked about. Fathers were not mentioned.

Tony Trần