Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parenting Practices of Resident Fathers: The Role of Marital and Biological Ties

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parenting Practices of Resident Fathers: The Role of Marital and Biological Ties

Article excerpt

This paper uses data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 2,098) to examine differences in the parenting practices of four types of resident fathers, defined by their biological relationship to a focal child and their marital status with regard to the focal child's mother. Regression results suggest that biological fathers and social fathers (i.e., stepfathers or mothers' cohabiting partners) differ significantly, and in some unexpected ways, on most measures of parenting. A considerable portion of these differences, however, can be explained by variation in the background characteristics of the individuals and families in each group. Additionally, difference-in-difference analyses reveal a stronger link between marriage and higher quality parenting practices among social fathers than among biological fathers.

Key Words: family structure, father involvement, parenting, social fathers, stepfathers.

Dramatic changes in U.S. family demography in the last half century have served to increasingly delink marriage from childrearing. Although annual divorce rates have been declining since the early 1980s, parental divorce continues to be common, and the majority of those who divorce will subsequently remarry-typically within about 4 years (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2007). In addition, about 37% of all births currently occur outside of marriage (Hamilton, Ventura, Martin, & Sutton, 2005), few unmarried parents will marry each other after their baby's birth (Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004; Osborne, 2005), and relationships between unmarried parents are highly unstable (Osborne & McLanahan, 2007). Together, these trends suggest that adults will likely enter and exit multiple unions and that children (especially those bom outside of marriage) will likely spend time living with a social parent, defined here as a married or cohabiting partner of a child's biological parent (usually mother) to whom the child is not biologically related (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Graefe & Lichter, 1999; Manning & Smock, 2000). Indeed, estimates from the mid1990s show that approximately one third of children in the United States will spend time living with a social parent during childhood (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000). More recent evidence suggests that more than a fifth of children born to unwed mothers will live with a social father by age 5 (Bzostek, Carlson, & McLanahan, 2007). Compared to children living with their married biological parents, those living in stepfamilies (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994) or with unmarried social fathers (Brown, 2004; Hofferth, 2006; Manning & Brown, 2006; Manning & Lamb, 2003) are, on average, disadvantaged on a range of outcomes.

Given that coresidence with a social father is a common experience for children and is also associated with childhood disadvantage, it is important to understand whether social fathers' parenting practices differ from those of biological fathers, both within and outside of marriage. Yet there has been limited research in this area (Hofferth & Anderson, 2003), largely because of a lack of available data (Hofferth et al., 2007; Seltzer, 2000). We use new data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) to describe differences in the parenting practices of four types of resident fathers, defined by their biological relationship to 5-year-old children and their marital status with regard to the children's mother. We then examine whether these differences can be explained by selection factors as well as whether associations between marriage and parenting practices differ for biological and social fathers.

Theoretical Perspectives and Prior Research

Demographic trends associated with the decoupling of marriage and childbearing have differentiated three aspects of family structure that promote parental investment in children: biological ties, coresidence, and marriage. Because our analyses evaluate the parenting practices of resident biological and social, married and unmarried fathers, we focus here on the role of biology and of marriage as a social institution in influencing mens' investments in children. …

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