Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Father-Child Relations, Mother-Child Relations, and Offspring Psychological Well-Being in Early Adulthood

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Father-Child Relations, Mother-Child Relations, and Offspring Psychological Well-Being in Early Adulthood

Article excerpt

Two major social changes have focused attention on the role of fathers. First, the massive movement of married women into the paid labor force disrupted the traditional division of labor within the nuclear family. With 67% of married mothers with children under 18 in the paid labor force, mothers now share the breadwinning role with their husbands (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, Table 621). Correspondingly, many people now believe that fathers should be more involved in providing care to their children, especially when mothers are employed full-time (Thornton, 1989). The belief that fathers should be more involved with children is based on two reasons: (a) It is more equitable to mothers, and (b) it benefits the children (Hochschild, 1989). In spite of these shifts in attitudes, time budget studies show that fathers still spend relatively little time in child care and rarely take sole responsibility for their children (Lamb, 1987; Pleck, 1985). Even when mothers are employed full-time, they spend twice as much time in housework and child care as do fathers (Hochschild, 1989; Pleck, 1985).

The second major change has been a decline in the prevalence of the nuclear family and a corresponding increase in mother-only families, due to a rise in both divorces and nonmarital births. Currently, the majority of children in the United States will spend some portion of time in single-parent families, usually with their mothers (Norton & Glick, 1986). This trend has problematic implications for relations between fathers and children. Many nonresident fathers have relatively little contact with children and either fail to pay child support or pay less than they should (Furstenberg, Nord, Peterson, Zill, 1983; Seltzer & Bianchi, 1988). Furthermore, Eggebeen and Uhlenberg (1985) demonstrated that the postponement of marriage, the decline in fertility, and the increase in divorce have resulted in men spending decreasing proportions of their lives coresiding with children.

Changes in gender roles and attitudes, and the growing divergence in the lives of men and children, lead to questions about the significance of fathers in children's lives. Available evidence regarding the importance of fathers (reviewed below) is surprisingly ambiguous. This article contributes new data on the significance of the father-child relationship, in particular the contributions fathers make to the psychological well-being of young adult children. In particular, I address whether the father-child relationship is associated with offspring well-being independently of the mother-child relationship. I also examine whether the salience of fathers is moderated by offspring gender, parental divorce, marital status, parenthood, or employment. Finally, I consider whether relations with stepfathers are related to offspring well-being.


Two positions can be constructed from available research. The first holds that fathers are key figures in the lives of most children. In contrast, the second position holds that fathers are peripheral figures in the lives of most children.


Several types of research support the notion that fathers are important. One cluster of studies examines correlations between father involvement and child outcomes. This research, reviewed by Lamb (1987), Radin and Russell(1983), and Snarey (1993, Chapter 6), is generally supportive of the role of fathers. Father involvement and nurturance are positively associated with children's intellectual development; this is particularly true when fathers are interested in children's academic outcomes, assist with homework, and have high educational expectations for their children. In addition, father involvement and nurturance are positively associated with children's social competence, internal locus of control, and the ability to empathize. More generally, authoritative parenting (involving warmth and a moderate degree of control) by both parents is associated with psychological and social adjustment among children (Rollins & Thomas, 1979). …

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