Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Promoting Fathers' Engagement with Children: Preventive Interventions for Low-Income Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Promoting Fathers' Engagement with Children: Preventive Interventions for Low-Income Families

Article excerpt

Few programs to enhance fathers' engagement with children have been systematically evaluated, especially for low-income minority populations. In this study, 289 couples from primarily low-income Mexican American and European American families were randomly assigned to one of three conditions and followed for 18 months: 16-week groups for fathers, 16-week groups for couples, or a 1-time informational meeting. Compared with families in the low-dose comparison condition, intervention families showed positive effects on fathers' engagement with their children, couple relationship quality, and children's problem behaviors. Participants in couples' groups showed more consistent, longer term positive effects than those in fathers-only groups. Intervention effects were similar across family structures, income levels, and ethnicities. Implications of the results for current family policy debates are discussed.

Key Words: experimental methods, father-child relations, Hispanic American, marriage and close relationships, parenting, prevention.

In the U.S. Deficit Reduction Act of 2006, one third of the $150 million annual budget for family support was allocated to programs promoting fathers' involvement with their children. This unprecedented commitment on the part of government policy makers to providing father-focused services for families was justified by citations of literature from three sources (see the Administration for Children and Families' Promoting Responsible Fatherhood website: http://fatherhood.hhs.gov/index.shtml). First, some observers (e.g., Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996) describe an increase in fathers' absence and disengagement from the family as a consequence of increases in separations, divorces, and single parenthood and conclude that this has posed serious risks for children's development and well-being. Second, findings from the 20-city Fragile Families study of births to primarily low-income unmarried mothers (Carlson & McLanahan, 2002) showed that most biological fathers have an ongoing romantic relationship with the mother when their child is born, but many faded from their child's life over the next few years.

Third, over the past 3 decades, an expanding body of literature concludes that fathers' engagement with their children is associated with positive cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes for children from infancy to adolescence (P. A. Cowan, Cowan, Cohen, Pruett, & Pruett, 2008; Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, & Levine, 1985; K. D. Pruett, 2000; Tamis-LeMonda & Cabrera, 2002). Conversely, children of disengaged or negatively engaged fathers are at risk for a host of cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties. Father engagement has been defined in many ways but measured primarily in terms of quantity of time spent with children, yet studies consistently show that the quality of fathers' involvement rather than the sheer quantity of contact is associated with positive outcomes for children (e.g., Amato, 1998).

Two quite different explanations have been advanced to explain why some fathers are more involved in their children's lives whereas others are either less involved or absent. A widely accepted deficit model of father involvement (Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997) assumes that the pervasive social problem of "fatherlessness" in America has resulted from a decline in "family values" and a lack of motivation on the part of men to maintain relationships with their spouse and child (Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996). These conclusions underlie interventions designed to persuade men to become "more responsible." By contrast, an ecological (Belsky, 1984; Bronfenbrenner, 1979) or family systems riskprotection-outcome model (C. P. Cowan & Cowan, 2000; M. K. Pruett, Insabella, & Gustafson, 2005) assumes that there are multiple systemic factors - a combination of barriers and resources within individuals, families, and environments - that shape both the quantity and quality of fathers' engagement with their children. …

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