Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Who Is Responsible for Responsible Fathering?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Who Is Responsible for Responsible Fathering?

Article excerpt

In the May 1998 issue of this journal, William Doherty, Edward Kouneski, and Martha Erickson proposed a conceptual framework on "Responsible Fathering." For both empirical and theoretical reasons, we found their essay to be problematic. The proposed model excludes key features of fatherhood and of motherhood, and researchers who attempt to operationalize it or practitioners who attempt to develop programs from it are destined to be misguided.

We are not concerned that the authors wrote from a position of advocacy. We agree that the new research on fatherhood primarily reflects a position valuing involved fathers and that discussions about absent fathers sometimes have a moral overtone. This is particularly evident in policy arenas. Congress, in fact, titled a 1998 child support bill, The Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act. As demonstrated by the plethora of empirical studies blaming mothers for their children's behavioral, psychological, and social problems (Caplan & Hall-McCorquodale, 1985), discussions about motherhood have moral overtones as well. Arguments grounded solely in ideology are inherent in the nature of public discourse. What is important for researchers who advocate a specific policy position in our journals is to adhere to principles and practices agreed upon within a scientific community, regardless of ideology (Furstenberg, 1999).

We appreciate the authors' willingness to make their underlying assumptions explicit. We draw attention to the empirical literature the authors neglected, however, and raise questions about their explicit and implicit reasoning. We take issue with their assumptions and their conclusions, and we critique their model by highlighting the sociohistorical context of fatherhood, childhood, and motherhood.


A key, explicit assumption of the authors is "that children need [italics added] and deserve active, involved fathers throughout their childhood and adolescence" (p. 279). Although there might be an ideological basis for this assumption, it lacks empirical support. Members of the scientific community may agree on what children need-broadly defined-for biological, physical, emotional, psychological, and social well-being. There is not agreement, however, that these needs must be met by a parent of a certain gender. In their study of children from single-parent households, Downey, Ainsworth-Darnell, and Dufur (1998) asked: "Do women and men play unique roles in shaping children's well-being?" (p. 878). They concluded that "the challenge for family researchers is to distinguish between familial characteristics that are necessarily important for creating positive family environments for children and those, such as sex of parent, that are not" (p. 892). We have no objection to children having actively involved fathers, but research has demonstrated that children's needs can be met within the full range of fathers' involvement, from no involvement to fathers raising children on their own (Acock & Demo, 1994; Risman, 1987).


Doherty et al. focused on heterosexual, biological fathers "to delimit the review" (p. 279). Except for marital status, nothing in the authors' conceptual model accounts for their emphasis on biological fathers. Furthermore, there is no empirical evidence that biology predisposes fathers to be responsible and involved (Cooksey & Fondell, 1996). The authors deliberately excluded adoptive, gay, step, fictive kin, and other father surrogates, many of whom are involved, responsible fathers. They suggested that nonbiological and gay fathers deserve empirical and programmatic focus, but they saw such focus as beyond the scope of their paper. Given the authors' concerns about children's needs and the variety of ways through which men function as fathers in contemporary society (e.g., Hawkins & Eggebeen, 1991), we are at a loss to understand their decision. Because there are involved and engaged fathers who are meeting their children's needs in all of the excluded groups, a contextual model of responsible fathers would and should include them. …

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