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Mother knows best? Fathers missing in research about kids

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…

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

This is despite the fact that the survey was aiming to find the most important factors to improve children’s mental health. Asking only the “primary carer” assumes that fathers have no major impact on their children’s health. But the evidence linking fathers’ behaviours to children’s wellbeing is old news.

It’s now 20 years since Vicki Phares published Make Room for Daddy, her damning criticism of the way mothers were blamed for all children’s mental health problems.

Recent research makes the point even more strongly. Last year, the Medical Journal of Australia reported that children of depressed fathers had more than twice the rates of mental health issues of their peers whose fathers were not depressed. This result held regardless of their mother’s mental health.

A few weeks ago, a survey of fathers’ mental health in the same publication found that “psychiatric illness among fathers can have a devastating impact on children and even milder forms of paternal mental illness can have serious developmental effects on children”.

Of course, those paying for the research will say that it’s cheaper to ask only one parent. But if policy and programs are going to be based on the evidence from studies such as this one, and the evidence is skewed, surely that’s going to be more costly in the long run.

Perhaps we need to check the purpose of the research before assuming that asking only the “primary carer” will do.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Kate Rowan-Robinson

    Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

    I think that it is extremely important to have a fathers view in research regarding children. While the primary caregiver (often the mother) may often know the intimate details of their children (height, weight, routine, etc.) it cannot be denied that fathers often have a great influence over their children.

    Research has shown even simple things such as eating habits in children are more heavily influenced by a fathers meal time habits, rather than a mothers. The mental well being of a father impacts heavily upon home life. Fathers often have a different perspective of their children than a mother and may be more adept at picking up different issues or problems. None of these things can be discounted in research.

    Research upon children would greatly improve if both caregivers (in assuming there are 2 caregivers, which is not always the case) were given a chance to have their say. Important influences in a childs life do not stop with the primary caregiver.

  2. David Thompson

    Science Communications at Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (UWS) at University of Western Sydney

    Richard, thank you for this.

    Can you outline what strategies and actions the surveyors should have put in place to better balance the need to include fathers as well as mothers in this research?

    Is it the case that the research makes an assumption which has skewed the results? I wonder what basis was used to determine the primary caregiver? Should they have specifically asked both mother and father?

  3. Gordon Smith

    Private citizen

    There is also a subjective nature to questions such as "does your child ever suffer from anxiety" that may vary depending on which parent is asked. I am much more likely to see anxiety in my children than my wife is due to our personality differences so depending on who you ask you get two different answers.
    It is possible that there are gender differences in the way fathers and mothers view psychological health and how they perceive sadness and worry etc that could skew the findings either way.
    Better to interview both to ensure that these things (potential or real) are eliminated.

  4. Dale Bloom


    Obviously the Australia Institute of Famly Studies should be the organisation that should be involved in research into families and children, but it was found some years ago that it had collected very little data on fathers in Australia, although it had been operation for some 20 years.

    “In recent years, increasing research attention is being paid to fathers. In Australia, small pockets of research exist but the gaps in our knowledge remain large and fundamental. For instance, around one million…

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Having had a quick look at the survey results, it seems to me that's all the Victorian government did - take a quick look. There is no in-depth analysis of mental health problems, and no effort at diagnosis in specific cases. The whole thing was done on a quick phone call to whoever happened to be the primary caregiver. They even state that they wanted some sort of surveillance mechanism providing an overview, being government I expect merely for planning and budgetary purposes.

    I doubt that they…

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  6. Janet Hutchison

    private citizen

    "A few weeks ago, a survey of fathers’ mental health in the same publication found that “psychiatric illness among fathers can have a devastating impact on children and even milder forms of paternal mental illness can have serious developmental effects on children”."

    Given that the most common problem that children present for in paediatricians' offices is ADHD and this is confirmed in Australian health survey data showing ADHD is the most common mental health condition in children, then identifying…

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  7. Richard Fletcher

    logged in via Facebook

    David Thompson asks what could be done to include fathers. The National Children's Study, mandated by the US Children's Health Act of 2000 is the largest and most detailed study to focus on children's health and development done in that country. For this study fathers are being included at every step. Fathers have been included in focus groups and pilot surveys to determine which questions to ask and biological specimens to take, this detailed preparatory work has been going on for five years. The intention is to make sure that the study captures fathers' data alongside that of mothers and to measure the effects of fathers beliefs, behaviours and relationships.

    1. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Richard Fletcher

      The National Children's Study is an American study, and it appears there are few reliable studies in Australia that include fathers.

      Fathers are being gradually forgotten about in a feminist society, or regarded as inconsequential, except to pay money of course.

    2. Lynne Newington


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, I agree fathers in todays society are regarded as in consequential, per-se from what I have seen, money or not.
      Cardinal Pell certainly acknowledges their importance in a Fathers Day article some time ago.
      "What do father's offer their children?, he asks: "They enjoy their company, value them with their imperfections and validating their worthiness", further stating "there would be fewer health problems because a sense of self respect is a wonderful foundation for adult life and for a proper self-.discipline".
      "Self discipline is best learnt early from consistant genuine fathers love that he imparts to them.
      Young men should hear the joys and responsability of being fathers".
      Ligitimately of course, as he makes no mention of the fathers with children born out of wedlock, clerics or other.

    3. Robert Johnson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Lynne Newington

      Dear Mr./Ms.:

      My wife and I would like you to sell/advertise our book "Overcoming the Afflictions of the Fatherless" in your book stores, radio show, or at your next Christian event. If you sell the books at the price printed on the cover, we will sell them to you at 10 for $70.00 as a donation.

      This 96 page paper back book (glossy cover) exposes the afflictions of the fatherless and depicts the role of the passive father in the home. This book also serves as an end-time tool in the spirit…

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    4. Lynne Newington


      In reply to Robert Johnson

      Good on you for writing such a book!
      Maybe I could pay for the postage and you could send a copy to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Cardinal Pell, the Apostilic Nuncio in Canberra [for religious order clergy], and the pesent Minister Provincial of the Franciscan Order Paul Smith. He I'm aware of at least has a case on his desk right now, where a father in good conscience, requested a rescript of his vows by valid process, refusing to persue it claiming the element of scandal of…

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