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Shared parenting: what’s really important when dads move out

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…

Quality relationships and time spent together is what’s important when it comes to children’s wellbeing. Flickr/disgustipado

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.

Policy issues

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.

Practical changes

There are other factors more important than the structure of a family. Flickr/C. Strife

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.

Better support

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.

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8 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Plant


    The title says it all -'when Dads move out'.

    Fathers still have far fewer rights than mothers when it comes to family law, speaking as one who has has been through the mill.

    We have to fight for and justify every minute we have with our children. Mothers have to do nothing - not even be good mothers. This was despite Howard's steps to restore some equality. What has not changed is the culture and ways of thinking in the Family Court, a system still imbued with Justice Nicholson's belief that the court was there to achieve women's emancipation. Arrogant, self-righteous, and unaccountable judges.

    Now we see that the WEL are trying to reverse even these timid steps. And this Labor Govt, ever keen to take back to the 1970's, are doing jsut that.

  2. Tony Bowring

    Relationship Counsellor - specialising in male issues

    Agreed, the Family Law Court & difficulties with the ex are mountains to climb. But as this article suggests, the quality of the relationship dad has with the kids are the hinge-point. Steve Biddulph, renown author, has put out some excellent resources, recommended reading for any man interested in being an involved & good dad. "The secret of happy children" "Raising boys" & what has become the man's Bible - "Manhood"

  3. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    While a state MP in WA for 8 years, I came to the conclusion that children (especially boys) need a significant male/father role in their lives. I also became suspicious of researchers who were looking for results to justify their preconceived views on issues. I make no comment on the studies reported in this article but surely the people who should be assessed for their 'well-being' are people aged in their 20s and 30s who were brought up without much contact from their fathers to see whether they have turned into well-adjusted adults. It's well and good to questions 8 and 9 year olds about how they think they are travelling but much more valuable is an assessment of adults who've been through single parent family environments.

  4. Matthew Green

    logged in via Twitter

    What a great article. The system is not geared up for non-resident dads who are desperately trying to be good fathers. People assume that because you left an unhappy, unhealthy environment you are going to turn into a deadbeat overnight. Well that's simply untrue. Believe me, I know.

  5. Margaret Buckley

    Retired educator

    I agree, the title says it all - "Shared parenting"! And thats what it should be, whether parents live together or not. I don't believe its about 'rights', but I do think a cooperative situation is essential for the childrens' sake. If parents consider the childrens' needs first then this is possible. Getting the law courts involved, and legal professionals, too often has negative consequences.
    I think this is a very important and accurate article. I agree, family structure doesn't determine the welfare of the child. And I'm not surprised that "non-resident fathers sometimes reported better parenting than resident fathers".
    I believe it would be useful if the stereotype for single-parent families was dropped, since it is a very destructive and inaccurate one. All parents have difficult moments; positive attitudes help.

  6. Robin Bell

    Research Academic Public Health, at University of Newcastle

    Isn't it disingenuous to conclude that because the best of fathers are able to maintain positive relationships with their children during periods of minimal contact (every second weekend and half the hols I’d guess), then the issue must be one of quality rather than quantity for non-residential fathers generally?
    Across a broad population both mothers and fathers range from bad to brilliant, with most fitting in a “doing the best they can” category, that is neither brilliant nor bad but somewhere…

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  7. Dale Bloom


    “Support programs designed specifically for non-resident fathers would be helpful”.

    Seems like making a job for social workers, (all paid for by the taxpayer), but perhaps a more logical and rational approach would be to reduce the number of separations and divorces.

    The costs to society of divorce and separation are immense, and the question becomes “Why has minimal research ever been undertaken in Australia on marriage divorce and separation in de facto relationships”

    What is known is that…

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    1. In reply to Dale Bloom

      Comment removed by moderator.