Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Nonresident Fathers and Children's Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Nonresident Fathers and Children's Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis

Article excerpt

We employed meta-analytic methods to pool information from 63 studies dealing with nonresident fathers and children's well-being. Fathers' payment of child support was positively associated with measures of children's well-being. The frequency of contact with nonresident fathers was not related to child outcomes in general. Two additional dimensions of the father-child relationship-feelings of closeness and authoritative parenting-were positively associated with children's academic success and negatively associated with children's externalizing and internalizing problems.

Do nonresident fathers contribute anything of value, other than money, to their children's lives? Based on the social science research conducted to date, one might be inclined to answer this question negatively. Amato (1993) summarized 32 studies of divorce that reported data on contact with noncustodial fathers and children's well-being. Of these studies, lS found that contact was associated significantly and positively with children's well-being, seven found that contact was associated significantly and negatively with children's well-being, and 10 found no significant association. Mixed results such as these have led many social scientists to reach pessimistic conclusions about the importance of nonresident fathers. For example, Seltzer (1994) noted that "large national surveys consistently show an absence of association between nonresident fathers' visits and children's well-being" (p. 256). Similarly, McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) stated that "studies based on large, nationally representative surveys indicate that frequent father contact has no detectable benefits for children" (p. 98). Because of this lack of evidence, Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) were "cautious about drawing any firm conclusions about the psychological benefits of contact with noncustodial parents for children's adjustment in later life" (p. 72).

In contrast to the weak evidence for visitation, evidence is stronger for fathers' payment of child support. Reviews of the literature by Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991), McLanahan and Sandefur (1994), Seltzer (1994), and others consistently point out the importance of increasing the number of child support awards made to single mothers, raising the amount of awards, and enforcing awards more strictly. All these recommendations are based on the assumption that nonresidential fathers' economic contributions not only increase children's standard of living, but also improve children's health, educational attainment, and general well-being. Many empirical studies support this assumption (e.g., Furstenberg, Morgan, & Allison, 1987; King, 1994; McLanahan, Seltzer, Hanson, & Thomson, 1994).

Why does research suggest beneficial effects on children when nonresident fathers pay child support, yet fail to suggest beneficial effects when nonresident fathers visit their children? These results appear to contradict a substantial body of research showing that positive father involvement in two-parent households contributes to children's development, well-being, and attainment. (See the chapters in Lamb, 1997, for reviews.) It is possible that nonresident fathers are less salient figures than resident fathers in the lives of children. But this conclusion clashes with qualitative studies showing that many children in single-mother households think highly of their fathers and wish for more frequent contact (Amato, 1987; Funder, 1996; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980). Indeed, it may be useful to begin with the assumption that nonresident fathers have the potential to benefit children and then to consider why existing studies have failed to provide supporting evidence.

This way of framing the problem suggests the possibility that researchers have focused their attention on the "wrong" dimension of father involvement. The majority of studies have measured frequency of visitation. But frequency of contact may be less important than other relationship dimensions, such as the strength of the emotional tie between children and fathers. …

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