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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.