The media often blame a lot of society’s problems on the break down of traditional family structures and the increase in single parent homes.
When fathers no longer live at home, policy makers focus on child support and residential arrangements as the best ways to help children and parents cope after separation. Courts allocate time with children to each parent, and governments legislate child support payments based on time allocations.
Quality not quantity
Research increasingly suggests that the quality of non-resident fathers’ relationships with their children is as important as the time they spend together.
A 1999 review found that children had fewer behavioural and emotional problems when they had a close relationship with a non-resident father, or when their father had a warm affectionate parenting style balanced by consistent expectations and limit setting.
Our new research extends these findings.
We examined the wellbeing of 302 8 to 9 year old children with a non-resident father, using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
We defined wellbeing as the absence of behavioural and emotional difficulties, and measured it using the results from a standard questionnaire used to pinpoint problems in this area.
We considered a wide range of factors as potential drivers of child wellbeing, including socioeconomic circumstances, mothers’ and fathers’ parenting practices, mothers’ and fathers’ mental health, and parental conflict.
Confidence and engagement
The key finding was that children were better off when their fathers were confident in their parenting role, when they were highly engaged in parenting decisions, and when they exhibited positive parenting behaviours.
Importantly, these relationships occurred irrespective of the amount of father-child contact, suggesting that fathers can enhance child wellbeing even if the time they spend with their child is limited.
We also found that non-resident fathers sometimes reported better parenting than resident fathers. They reported higher warmth toward their children, and were more likely explain the consequences of behaviour with their child.
Clearly, then, not all non-resident fathers fit the stereotype of being disengaged dads.
These findings have implications for Australian policy. Just over 1 million, or 22% of Australian children aged 0-17 years had a non-resident biological parent in 2006-07, and the majority (82%) of these parents were fathers.
Governments then would help a large number of children by encouraging positive involvement with their non-resident fathers.
Some policy changes have already been made. The Family Law Amendment of 2006 encouraged long-term involvement of both parents by encouraging shared parenting responsibility.
Several government departments have also released publications aiming to help families reduce conflict, and maintain positive relationships after divorce. For instance the Child Support Agency released “Me, my kids and my ex: forming a workable relationship for the benefit of your kids” which gives practical tips to both parents.
These are coupled with policies that encourage father participation more generally, such as the introduction of paid paternity leave.
One area where policy change could be particularly useful is in helping services engage with non-resident fathers. Schools and health-care services often communicate primarily with resident parents – making it hard for non-resident parents to stay informed.
Parenting support services also tend to focus on mothers, meaning that fathers either feel unwelcome, or find the service irrelevant. Support programs designed specifically for non-resident fathers would be helpful. Importantly, these programs should be held in out-of-work hours to cater for fathers working full-time.
Separate or together?
Our study also compared children with non-resident fathers to those who live with both biological parents.
As other research has shown, having a non-resident father negatively affects a child’s wellbeing compared with those living with both parents. However, we found that this difference was fully explained by things that go alongside parental separation – such as economic hardship, family conflict and poor parent mental health.
Family structure per se did not independently contribute to child wellbeing.
A number of social commentators have recently re-engaged in media debates about the supposed negative effects on children of being raised in separated and single parent households.
Our findings highlight the misleading nature of such blanket claims. We found that where there was no economic hardship, no family conflict and where parents had good mental health, children with separated parents were doing well.
The findings suggest that discouraging parents from separating is unlikely to improve child wellbeing. And as recognised by the recent Family Law Amendments, the best interests of the child must be a central consideration in determining post-separation arrangements.
Across all family types, there is consistent evidence that children are harmed by exposure to inter-parental conflict.
Stigmatising separated parents may hurt children by undermining parents’ confidence. Instead, we should support separating parents by recognising and trying to minimise the adversities they face.
Acknowledging that non-resident fathers are important for more than just their child support payments may also affect children’s wellbeing.
But while increased time together may help strengthen father-child relationships, allocating more time together is not enough. We need to help separated parents ensure that this time is a positive experience for children – free from family conflict, and with a parent who is confident, skilled and engaged with their parenting role.