One of the most powerful studies ever has recently demonstrated the importance of fathers to children. In fact, its authors conclude that, in some ways, fathers may be more important than mothers to a child’s long-term well-being. Here’s an article about the study (National Post, 6/14/12).
Of course, social science literature is freighted with studies showing the value of fathers to children. They’ve been building up for decades until, by now, it’s no surprise that fathers play a vital role in children’s lives. But this is no ordinary study; it’s a meta-analysis of 36 long-term international studies conducted over the past half-century. The cohort consists of almost 11,000 parents and children, and the results overwhelm any notion that fathers are expendable to their children.
The analysis deals not only with the positives of father involvement, but also with the negatives of perceived paternal rejection of children. As such, it should be the rock that sinks the current anti-father/anti-child family law system for good.
In a long-term analysis of 36 international studies of nearly 11,000 parents and children, researchers have found that a father’s love contributes as much — and sometimes more — to a child’s development as that of a mother, while perceived rejection creates a larger ripple on personality than any other type of experience.
The power of paternal rejection or acceptance is especially strong in cases where the father is seen by his child as having heightened prestige in the family, as this tends to boost his influence.
“In our half-century of international research, we’ve not found any other class of experience that has as strong and consistent an effect on personality as does the experience of rejection — especially by parents in childhood,” says co-author Ronald Rohner, whose study appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.
“In many instances, fathers are as important developmentally as mothers. In some instances, they turn out to be even more important developmentally than mothers. And what we find extraordinary is that, sometimes, a mother’s influence drops out altogether.”
Across decades of studies, with a total 10,943 adults and children, perceived paternal acceptance was significantly linked to less hostility; independence; healthy self-esteem; feelings of adequacy; emotional stability and responsiveness; and a positive world view.
By contrast, perceived paternal rejection was significantly linked to problems with anger or aggression; lower self-esteem; feelings of inadequacy; emotional instability and unresponsiveness; and a dim world view.
“There’s a very consistent worldwide effect of impaired psychologically adjustment wherever kids perceive themselves to be rejected by Mom or Dad. And that effect shows up more significantly for dads than for moms,” says Rohner, professor emeritus of family studies at the University of Connecticut.
To wit, a father’s rejection more strongly predicted four classes of child behaviour than a mother’s: behavioural problems, substance abuse, depression and overall maladjustment.
A father’s love, meanwhile, more strongly predicted satisfaction and well-being, and acted as a better buffer against substance abuse and depression.
“We’ve assumed for years that all kids need for normal, healthy development is a loving relationship with Mom, and that dads are primarily there as financial supports for the family,” says Rohner. “We now see how fundamentally wrong that is.”
Gary Direnfeld, a social worker from Dundas, Ont., said he hopes the study will help quell the cultural tendency to treat mothers as both sole hero and villain in a child’s life — alternating between bashing and enshrining them, depending on the youngster’s behaviour.
“We all want well-rounded children. Well, children are a product of two parents and both should be meaningfully involved wherever possible,” says Direnfeld, an expert on family life.
Probably without meaning to, the analysis addresses most of the most egregious failings of family courts. By taking fathers out of children’s lives via the expedient of the Standard Visitation Order, i.e. every other weekend plus possibly one overnight during the week, courts encourage both children and mothers to view Dad as little more than a wallet. After all, child support is what the court really cares about and it proves it by rigidly enforcing those orders while largely ignoring orders for contact. Any child over about five will be able to see who the preferred parent is. Combine that with the court’s hesitancy to enforce Dad’s modest visitation and little Andy or Jenny will start to see less and less of him. Children take things personally and it’s no surprise that, when they see less and less of their father, they experience it as his rejection of them.
So courts virtually ensure that children of divorce will experience the negative side of what the analysis discusses – paternal rejection. And of course it’s dogged refusal to award equal or even close-to-equal parenting time negates any possibility that the children will experience the positive side – a meaningful relationship with Dad. And all of that assumes the court isn’t ignoring worse maternal behavior like alienation or child abduction which they commonly do.
Just a couple of weeks ago, an Australian judge, Tom Altobelli, honored a mother’s parental alienation of her children by giving her sole custody and limiting the father’s contact to sending birthday cards. In what must be the most scurrilous and cowardly act by any judge ever, Altobelli then wrote a letter to the children to be opened when they turn 14. In it he placed the onus on them to contact their father who by then will have become a complete non-factor in their lives. I wonder what Altobelli would say if he read the study in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. By his cowardice, he devastated the lives of two children, guaranteeing that they will see their father as having rejected them and, in any event, having prevented every contact between them and him.
It is far past time for state legislatures and family courts to bring themselves into compliance with the clear dictates of social science. Children need both parents in their lives. Legislatures and courts must forever cease coming between children and fit fathers who want to care for them.
Thanks to Paulette for the heads-up.