Parenting & biology – the stepfathers edition

// 15 August 2008

elephant familyResearch out of the US indicates that in so-called “fragile” families, mothers actually rate step-fathers’ parenting abilities as about equal to/better than biological fathers, as reported in The News & Observer.

Mothers reported that stepfathers were more engaged, more cooperative and shared more responsibility than their biological counterparts did, according to the study, published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Lawrence Berger, the study’s lead author, cautioned that the findings applied only to “fragile families,” defined as low-income urban families prone to nonmarital births.

The findings contradict a popular view among social workers and family policy experts that biological fathers invest more in their own flesh and blood.

“I think this research does, to some extent, call some of those assumptions into question,” said Rebekah Levine Coley, a developmental psychologist at Boston College.

“It certainly shows that stepfathers or even unmarried social fathers can be quite productive in rearing children,” she said.

The study found little difference in how engaged stepfathers were in playing with their children compared with married biological fathers. Mothers also trusted stepfathers and married biological fathers equally when it came to caring for the mothers’ children when they were away.

First of all “families prone to nonmarital births” is an, um, interesting way of putting it! It is individual women who give birth, not “families”, and I take issue with this categorisation. Basically, they’re saying that families including children born out-of-wedlock are “fragile”. Given that the findings of the research disrupted another big assumption about family dynamics, I think this is a bit of a dodgy starting ground. Then you’re just left with just “low income” as a proxy for “fragile”.

Secondly, the story reports two different findings – either stepfathers are more engaged (paragraph one of the quote), or they are equally engaged (last paragraph of the quote). They can’t be both, surely?!

Disclaimers aside, this provides more evidence on how biology is not the determining factor in good parenting, and also surely helps to contradict some of the blame directed at mothers who don’t stick with the biological father of their children. This is interesting too:

The study also looked at biological fathers who hadn’t married and at “cohabiting social fathers.” It found that mothers trusted unmarried biological fathers more than cohabiting social fathers to care for their children. But cohabiting social fathers were more cooperative with mothers when it came to parenting.

I like the phrase “social fathers”, if not the surprised reaction to the thought that marriage isn’t a pre-requisite for good parenting. The story doesn’t go into why social fathers might be more cooperative than biological fathers, unfortunately.

(Via Al’s Morning Meeting)

Photo by Today is a good day, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Aimee // Posted 15 August 2008 at 5:25 pm

This made me really angry. I really resent the assumption that a couple who have a child but are not married are presumed to be less able parents than a married couple. I also resent the assumption that families on a low income are presumed to be less able parents than more well off families. I ALSO resent the entire bloody survey. I mean, what the hell kind of conclusion can be made from all this? Where is the necessity in it? There are many different types of father. There are many different types of mother. It is impossible, detrimental and unnecessary to attempt to ‘catagorise’ them all in this kind of stupid way. It irritates me that we’re constantly being cornered into various demographics. It seems like control to me.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 17 August 2008 at 1:43 pm

Well, I hate to say it, but those families which are not headed by a married couple when children are born are *statistically* more likely to end in divorce.

This doesn’t really mean a thing, though.

I was about to say the survey isn’t borne out by my own experience, but then I remember… My son’s father insultingly denies paternity yet has dodged DNA tests for nearly twelve years and the men who have featured in his life are my dad and my daughter’s father, who both spend more time and energy on him than his own father EVER did.

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