Evidence Supports the Importance of Fathers in Children's Lives

Contact: Tim Parsons (410-328-9260; [email protected]) or
Ellen Beth Levitt (410-328-8919; [email protected]), University of Maryland School of Medicine

Embargo: Saturday, May 13, 10:15 am

According to researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, children who have fathers in their lives learn better, have higher self-esteem and show fewer signs of depression than children without fathers. In addition, children who perceive their fathers as supportive feel a greater sense of social acceptance and show fewer signs of depression. The study is among the first-to examine from a child's perspective-the role a father plays in the behavioral and mental development of his children. The findings will be presented on May 13 at the Pediatric Academic Societies and American Academy of Pediatrics Conference, in Boston, Massachusetts.

"Much of the earlier research has looked at white, middle class fathers. For this study, we wanted to take a different approach," says Howard Dubowitz, M.D., M.S., professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the University of Maryland Child Protection Program. "We wanted to see how children viewed their father and how his support was associated with how the children were doing," explains Dr. Dubowitz.

For the study, researchers examined 855 six-year-old children living in Baltimore, San Diego, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and North Carolina. All of the children interviewed were from low-income families or were deemed "high risk" for a number of reasons, including growth problems, having a parent who abused drugs, or having a parent at risk for HIV infection. Some children had been reported to child protective services for abuse or neglect and others were in foster care.

The children were asked to identify the key adult males in their lives. Of the 855 children, 75 percent identified at least one supportive male in their lives. In some cases, the key male adult was not the biological father, but a "father figure." The children were asked to what extent they felt their father or father figure was supportive of them.

According to the researchers, children who identified a father or father figure scored higher on basic learning skill tests and had a stronger sense of competence and social acceptance compared to children without fathers.

Researchers also found that children who viewed their fathers or father figures as supportive had a greater feeling of competence, greater social acceptance, and were less likely to be depressed compared to children who did not view their father or father figure as supportive. But, despite feeling better, these children did not demonstrate any improvements in actual learning abilities or improved behavior.

The findings of the study applied equally to both boys and girls and to black and white children. Also, the study results applied equally to children involved with a biological father and to children involved with a "father figure."

"This study supports other research which clearly suggests that a father's presence and involvement benefits the child," says Dr. Dubowitz. "We need to find ways to encourage the positive and supportive role of fathers and father figures in the lives of their children," adds Dr. Dubowitz.

The study was funded by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child Abuse and Neglect.

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