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November 24, 2016

Dad Embracing Fatherhood = No Troubled Teen. What?!

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crying-child
According to a study carried out in the United Kingdom, trouble with unruly teenagers can largely be avoided if fathers embrace their fatherhood and have a positive attitude towards it, and it does not matter whether or not said father assists in childcare, spends time with children, or helps out around the house. Well, that's the basic tenet of the study, the focus of an article on The Guardian. However, I find this conclusion problematic.

In no way am I disputing the fact that a positive attitude in a father towards his role in his children's lives will have an equally positive effect on their development. I would, however, like to point out some issues I have with the conclusion insofar as it may create the incorrect assumptions about troubled teens and parenting.

First of all, the participation of either parent in the study was different. The mothers were only asked about their children's behaviour, such as their ability to share and social skills - answers which I believe can be fairly objective on the part of the mothers as observers. The fathers, on the other hand, were asked questions that could largely be answered subjectively: how they felt about fatherhood, how confident they were as a parent, and whether or not they enjoyed spending time with their children. Researchers admitted the study relied mainly on self-reporting and from this we can see there must be quite an emotional response underlying the answers.

Also, the fathers were asked how much they helped around the house, and the mothers were not; we can thus infer that there is an implicit bias in the study: mothers are the main caregivers and thus do, or are expected to do, all the housework.

Most studies heretofore have focused on a mother's role in the positive development of their children and this study has been praised for putting the focus on the fathers, who are overlooked much of the time. I agree with this statement: fathers are often not viewed as particularly capable when looking after children and sometimes are seen as completely useless and any time they spend looking after children is sweet (take a look at these comments comparing how mothers and fathers are treated when caregiving).

However, a study that determines that legions of teens are troubled because they simply did not have committed fathers is not considering all the aspects that are involved when raising children. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I see the study as finding that the father needs to do nothing at all but be positive towards his child and confident in his own capabilities. He does not need to spend time with his children; he does not need to help the mother in caregiving or housecleaning; he does not even need to engage with them. As long as he is confident as a father.

unhappy-family
This rings incredibly hollow to me and I can see it working for a nuclear family where the mother is not depressed, not lonely, and perfectly happy to be the only one to engage with the children. But picture this: the father - who is confident as a father and enjoys being with his kids - goes to work and the mother cares for the child. She does everything during the day, from cleaning up and wiping bums to teaching the alphabet or counting, reading a bedtime story, and tucking the kids in for the night. The father comes home and relaxes. The mother is exhausted, making her short-tempered and impatient with the children and not at all invested in doing activities with them. She is not happy and her emotions seep into her children.Perhaps the father's unwillingness to help with the chores frustrates the mother even more, resulting in screaming arguments. Or perhaps throw in a father who enjoys overindulging in alcohol after getting home from work and tends to get rowdy and perhaps a bit rough. He still likes being a parent though. And the study is telling me that these children will still end up as untroubled teens?

We are told that maternal love activates cognitive development. We are told that a depressed mother can repress this development. We are told the mother is the centre of the family, that her feelings of stability, her relationships, and her parenting can make or break a happy home. If the mother is not experiencing feelings of security in the different aspects of her life, the child's cognitive development is at risk. But it's all good and dandy as long as the father is happy? Because then the kids won't be troubled? They may be less clever but they won't be troubled.

Thus should the study in question not be focusing on the confidence and happiness of both parents? Surely the happiness of a child heading into their teen years depends on an array of aspects, from tension between parents, depression of parents or child, secret physical or sexual abuse, bullying, the loss of a loved one, drug or alcohol abuse (by child or parent), or peer pressure. It certainly isn't enough to say that a father confident in fatherhood equals a happy teen.

As a mother, if this is true, it is disheartening to think that all the effort I put into raising my child will be for nought unless my husband continues to be confident in his fatherly skills and happy as a dad.

Perhaps I'm jumping the gun as I have not read the study in its entirety and I also don't know what variables were used to decide who would take part in the study, aside from families where the parents were still together until the child was eight months of age. Also, I don't think that only 10 440 children are really statistically valuable or accurate. After all, there are over 11 million children under the age of 18 in England (as of 2014). But hey, I don't know anything about statistics.

{Image credits: 
Header: Flickr/Mindaugas Danys [CC BY 2.0]
Inset: Flickr/Stuart [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]}

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