Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Social Fathering in Low-Income, African American Families with Preschool Children

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Social Fathering in Low-Income, African American Families with Preschool Children

Article excerpt

Although research increasingly focuses on nonresident biological fathers, little attention has been given to the role of other men in children's lives. The authors examine the factors associated with social father presence and their influence on preschoolers' development. Findings indicate that the majority of children have a social father and that mother, child, and nonresident biological father characteristics are all related to social father presence. These associations differ depending on whether the social father is the mother's romantic partner or a male relative. The social father's influence on children's development also depends on his relationship to the child. Male relative social fathers are associated with higher levels of children's school readiness, whereas mothers' romantic partner social fathers are associated with lower levels of emotional maturity.

Key Words: African American children, fatherhood, lowincome families, preschoolers' development, single-mother families, social fathers.

Changing patterns of marital structure and parental involvement have altered both societal and individual views of the father role (Coley, 1998). As the percentage of American children living with their fathers continues to decline, research and policy interests increasingly focus on nonresident biological fathers and their influence on children's development (Furstenberg, 1995; Tamis-- LeMonda & Cabrera, 1999). Given high rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing, focusing on nonresident biological fathers' involvement is clearly warranted. However, the increasingly complex and fluid marital and living arrangements that children experience necessitates a broader examination of the adults who influence their lives. Especially in single-mother families, children may have relationships with important men who are not their biological father but who act like a father to them.

To better understand the context of children's family relationships and to further examine the father concept in single-mother families, we examine the presence and impact of social fathers on preschoolers' development. By a social father, we mean a male relative or family associate who demonstrates parental behaviors and is like a father to the child (Tamis-LeMonda & Cabrera, 1999). Our focus on social fathers does not negate the importance of nonresident biological fathers. Rather, we suggest that in addition to biological father involvement, the presence of social fathers may also be significant. By examining social fathers' contribution to children's development, we can more effectively address the complex ecologies of family structure experienced by young children (Hawkins & Eggebeen, 1991).

The presence and effects of social fathers are particularly relevant for African American families, where rates of single parenthood are especially high. Only about 25% of African American children live with both biological parents, a lower rate than ones for White and Hispanic children (Teachman, Tedrow, & Crowder, 2000). At the same time, cultural traditions that encourage fluid and nontraditional roles for adult members may increase the significance of social fathers for African American children (Billingsley, 1992). Thus, African American children in single-mother families may be especially likely to have relationships with men who play a parental role but are not the child's biological father.

Relatively little attention has been paid to social fathers and their potential influence on children's development (although research on fatherhood and nonresidential father involvement has flourished in recent years; see Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000). Existing studies that include social fathers have been either small scale or qualitative in nature or have included a general fathering concept that has not differentiated social fathers from biological fathers (Black, Dubowitz, & Starr, 1999; Coley, 1998; Sullivan, 1993). …

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