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«PS 029 597 ED 454 971 Gadsden, Vivian L. AUTHOR The Absence of Father: Effects on Children's Development and TITLE Family Functioning. Pennsylvania ...»

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PS 029 597

ED 454 971

Gadsden, Vivian L.


The Absence of Father: Effects on Children's Development and


Family Functioning.

Pennsylvania Univ., Philadelphia. National Center on Fathers


and Families.

Annie E. Casey Foundation, Baltimore, MD.




NOTE 26p.

National Center on Fathers and Families, University of


Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, 3700 Walnut

Street, Box 58, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6216. Tel:

215-573-5500; Fax: 215-573-5508; e-mail:

mailbox@ncoff.gse.upenn.edu. For full text:


Information Analyses (070)


MF01/PCO2 Plus Postage.


Adjustment (to Environment); Black Youth; Child Development;


Childhood Needs; *Children; Family Relationship; *Fatherless Family; *Fathers; Low Income Groups; *Parent Child Relationship; Parent Influence; *Poverty; Stress Variables African Americans; Family Functioning



Noting that the inherent stressors associated with single parenting and the practical advantages of having another parent share the decision-making and emotional responsibility for children are supported by considerable research, this paper examines the effects of single parenthood on children's social and cognitive development and family functioning, focusing on children in low-income, female-headed households. Topics discussed in the paper are: (1) cultural context, social need, and family functioning; (2) the nature of social need in young, female-headed households; (3) effects of father absence on family adjustment; (4) economic effects and stress; (5) poverty and single-parent homes; (6) developmental and social issues; (7) self-esteem, emotional development, and academic achievement; and (8) social development. The paper advocates the implementation of public policies built upon the premise of "kin" as a comprehensive family form of biological and non-biological supports. The paper asserts that there are competing and inconsistent data on whether children in two-parent families fare better than children in single-parent families. However, poverty is identified as a major obstacle to family functioning in single- and two-parent households. The paper also suggests that the impact of experiencing poverty and observing undue stress may be underestimated for children in poverty and in single-parent, father-absent homes. Finally, the paper asserts that policies are necessary that promote and advance the notion of community responsibilities for children. (Contains 118 references.) (KB)

–  –  –

The National Center on Fathers and Families (NCOFF) is a policy research center that is practice-focused and practice-derived. Based at the National Center on University of Pennsylvania, NCOFF 's mission Fathers and Families is to improve the life chances of children and the efficacy of families by facilitating the effective involvement of fathers in caring for, supporting, and advocating on behalf of their children. Efforts are organized around three interdependent approaches: program development, a policy research and policymakers engagement component, and dissemination activities. NCOFF 's research plan is developed around seven "Core Learnings," distilled from the experiences of programs and agencies serving fathers, mothers, and children around the country.

Core funding for NCOFF is provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


–  –  –

Not since the 1960s and 1970swhen research in the field was at a peakhave family issues captured as much attention or sparked as much wide-scale debate as they have in recent years. Casting its net to address a variety of problems that fall outside the typical domains of psychology and sociology (where much of the early work was located), research on families is part of a growing interdisciplinary focus which is no longer simply implicated in questions about family development. Rather, the present interdisciplinary focus of the field attempts to respond to massive changes in the needs, structures, poverty levels, and formation patterns of families and the policies that are designed to remedy the increasingly complex problems they face.

A significant and compelling part of research on families over the past 20 years explores the impact of father involvement and father absence on children's development and complements much of the existing research on issues in other arease.g., femaleheaded households, poverty, social welfare, and public policy. In particular, the potential impact of family support legislation, national welfare reform agendas, and persistent systemic problems at local and state levels lend a sense of urgency to the research discussion about father participation in families. What is noticeably lacking in these discussions, however, is a focus on programs that serve fathers and families and the voices of practitioners.

The issues defining and surrounding research and practice on fathers and families are complex. Nested in each issue are multiple layers of questions about the problems facing young fathers, mothers, and families; the needs of programs and the practitioners who work in them; changes in national, state, and local policies; and the nature of the tasks facing society. Although there is substantial discussion about the impact of father absence, research studies provide only modest evidence for the negative consequences of father absence on children and typically attribute these negative effects to reduced family income resulting from separation or divorce. There are only sparse data on families that deviate from "traditional, intact" family forms such as families headed by adolescent or young, adult never-married, and/or poor mothers. Research on families of color, outside of poverty studies, are conspicuously absent from the knowledge base.

The work of the National Center on Fathers and Families (NCOFF) uses the strengths and voids in these research discussions as a launching pad to develop a framework for research, practice, and policyto promote the building of a field in which the needs of children and families are the core of the discourse and research and practice cohere to craft the language and activities associated with that discourse. NCOFF aims to bring together these issues within a research and collaborative effort on behalf of children and their families.

5 Established in July 1994 with core funding from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, NCOFF's mission is to improve the life chances of children and the efficacy of families by facilitating the effective involvement of fathers. Developed in the spirit of the Philadelphia Children's Network's (PCN) motto, "Help the children. Fix the system.", NCOFF seeks to increase and enrich the possibilities for children, ensuring that they are helped and that the system allows for and encourages the participation of fathers in their children's lives.

NCOFF shares with PCN and other field activities the premises that children need loving, nurturing families; that mothers and families in general need to be supported in providing nurturance; and that family support efforts should increase the ability of both parents and adults within and outside the biological family to contribute to children's development and well-being.

NCOFF's mission is developed around seven Core Learnings, distilled from the experiences of PCN and confirmed thus far in our work as being consistent with the experiences of other programs and agencies serving fathers. These Core Learnings are:

Fathers careeven if that caring is not always shown in conventional ways;


Father presence mattersin terms of economic well-being, social support, and child 2.


Joblessness is a major impediment to family formation and father involvement;


Existing approaches to public benefits, child support enforcement, and paternity 4.

establishment operate to create obstacles and disincentives to father involvement.

The disincentives are sufficiently compelling as to have prompted the emergence of a phenomenon dubbed "underground fathers"men who acknowledge paternity and are involved in the lives of their children but who refuse to participate as fathers in the formal systems;

A growing number of young fathers and mothers need additional support to develop the vital skills to share the responsibility for parenting;

The transition from biological father to committed parent has significant developmental implications for young fathers; and The behaviors of young parents, both fathers and mothers, are influenced significantly by intergenerational beliefs and practices within families of origin.

The Core Learnings provide the context for NCOFF's basic research which is designed to synthesize work from multiple disciplines, provide current analyses, and examine emerging conceptualizations in the field. NCOFF recognizes that the scope of need in the field requires a variety of approaches and the commitment and collective effort of different communities. The NCOFF research agenda is intended to support the field in the development, conduct, and advancement of research, practice, and responsive policies.

6 This Monograph is intended to highlight critical and emerging topics in the field that have received minimal attention and that complement issues identified in the NCOFF Re-search Databases and the critical literature reviews. The Databases combine citation lists, annotated bibliographies, and abstracts of research articles, reports, and volumes that fo-cus on issues implied in the Core Learnings. The critical literature reviews have been writ-ten and reviewed by scholars representing multiple disciplines and research interests in fathers and families. Information about the NCOFF Databases, the literature reviews and analysis, working papers, and other NCOFF documents and activities is currently avail-able on Hands Net.

Embedded in NCOFF's mission is a vision in which fathers, families, and communities are positioned to ensure the well-being of children and are able to translate their hope and the possibilities that accompany that hope into human and social prosperity. A well-coor-dinated national effort on fathers and families will give support and a collective voice to programs, encourage research, and contribute to responsive policy formulation. Such a vehicle would provide the appropriate context for experience-sharing among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers; identification of basic research, program, and policy-re-lated issues; surfacing of new research issues; and increased opportunities for communica-tion, cooperation, and collaboration.

Vivian L. Gadsden Co-Director


Vivian L. Gadsden is Director of the National Center on Fathers and Families and Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1990, she also has been Associate Director of the National Center on Adult Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania.

v 8 The current focus on family formation and family systems in research and policy ac knowledges the changing constellations of "the American family." Perhaps the single change that has garnered the greatest interest in public reports and the popular press has been the increasing numbers of children growing up in female-headed households ostensibly characterized by an absence of fathers from the daily functioning of the family. To the degree that these families are headed by young or teenage, never-married mothers, the alarm has sounded loudly; to the degree that these young mothers and their children constitute families in poverty, the alarm has generated new discussions about family support.

The issue of poverty is central to any discussion of single parenting and its effects on children growing up in female-headed households (Kelly and Ramsey, 1991). Whether in female-headed homes resulting from divorce or from unmarried pregnancy, children with fathers absent experience a loss of resources (Hofferth, Brayfield, Deich, and Holcomb, 1991;

Krein and Beller, 1988). The problems associated with father absence become acute for families that have been victimized by chronic, intergenerational poverty, particularly African American families and other families of color that are equally victimized by discrimination.

In short, the loss of income resulting from father absence reduces the capacity of single parents to be supportive, consistent, and involved in childrearing.

Despite the practical view that father absence matters, research studies provide only modest evidence for the negative consequences for childrenthe exception being the negative effects of lost income in the case of divorce (Vosler and Proctor, 1991; Wallerstein, 1988). This is due, in part, to the sparse data on families that deviate from "traditional intact" family forms, e.g., families headed by teenage, never-married, and/or poor mothers. In these and other single-parent homes, the consequences appear most severe for children's development of social identity, cognitive ability, emotional capacity, and social competenceeach negatively affected by the loss of time and nurturance from a second parent or adult (Heath and MacKinnon, 1988). The inherent stressors associated with single parenting and the practical advantages of having another parent share the decisionmaking and emotional responsibility for children are supported by research across disciplines (Brooks-Gunn and Chase-Lansdale, 1991; McCubbin, and Figley, 1983; Hetherington and Camara, 1984). Thus, rather than ask what are the negative effects of father absence, we might well pose the question: Why does it matter that a father participates in his children's development, especially for children living in poverty and in environments with few role models of responsible fathering?

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