Paternal Absence and Child Behavior: Does a Child's Gender Make a Difference?

Article excerpt

FRANK L. MOTT The Ohio State University

LORI KOWALESKI-JONES Northwestern University*

ELIZABETH G. MENAGHAN The Ohio State University*

This research uses data from the 1979-1990 rounds of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and its complementary child assessment data to explore the shorter and longer implications of a father's absence from the home for the behavior of a national sample of 482 White children who were 9-11 years old in 1990. A particular focus of the research was to explore gender variations in these longer and shorter term effects. More modest effects of a father's absence are generally found for girls than for boys, although the gender differences typically are not statistically significant. This modest behavioral gender distinction appears for both externalization and internalization subscores. The latter finding was contrary to expectations. Additionally, boys and girls appear to respond similarly and negatively to the presence of a new man in the home.

Key Words: child behavior problems, father absence, gender differences.

In recent decades there has been a substantial decline in the proportion of children who can expect to reach adulthood with both biological parents in residence (Cherlin, 1992; Sweet & Bumpass, 1987). This family situation often has major economic implications for the well-being of the family unit (e.g., Saluter, 1994, Table 6; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, Figure 23). There also is a substantial body of research suggesting a traumatic short-term impact for mother and child when a partner or father departs from the home (e.g., Amato & Keith, 1991; Hess & Camara, 1979; Hetherington, 1989). Part of this short-term trauma may reflect the fact that the home environment before separation often is less than harmonious (Demo & Acock, 1988; Hetherington, Stanley-Hagen, & Anderson, 1989). However, the longer term psychological implications for the child whose father is absent are somewhat more ambiguous, and the extent to which boys and girls may differ in their responses to having an absent father are uncertain (e.g., Demo & Acock, 1988; Kinard & Reinherz, 1986). Although there is some large sample research on these topics, much of the literature that explores longer versus shorter term effects and gender differences is based on small, nonrepresentative samples.

Our research utilizes data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to explore these issues for a sample of 9 to 11 year olds in 1990. These children were born to a relatively youthful sample of mothers who were mostly between the ages of 17 and 22 when the child was born. The longitudinal dimensions of the data set and the rich body of family and maternal background information available permit a more comprehensive exploration of shorter and relatively longer term effects of a father's absence on a child's behavior than is typically possible.

GENDER DISTINCTIONS IN EFFECTS OF FATHER ABSENCE

There is substantial evidence suggesting that boys and girls respond differently to a father's departure from the home (Biller, 1981; Blanchard & Biller, 1971; Camara & Resnick, 1988; Guidibaldi & Perry, 1985). In the short run, perhaps for as long as 2 years following a father's leaving, the home environment often can be stressful, and boys, in particular, may act out a variety of interpersonal behaviors both inside and outside the home (e.g., Demo & Acock, 1988; Hetherington, 1987; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985). Boys are generally more aggressive in their disruptive behaviors and more frequently follow noncompliant behavior paths (e.g., Allison & Furstenberg, 1989; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985; Hetherington et al., 1982). The greater behavioral difficulty expressed by boys may partly reflect a stronger father-son bonding prior to the disruption, a bonding that has been interrupted. Finally, there is some suggestion from research on White children that mother-son acrimony increases after a divorce (Hetherington et al. …