Our understanding of fathers and the roles they play in children’s lives has shifted significantly over the last 50 years with researchers just recently examining the significant diversity inherent in fathering across different groups (Lamb, 2008). Despite the growth of studies that assess fathering from various multicultural and disciplinary perspectives, there is still much unknown about the extent to which fathers and mothers differentially contribute to children’s wellbeing and the role of fathers in children’s lives across stages of development. This symposium contributes to a more nuanced understanding of fathers’ contributions to child wellbeing by presenting research that examines fathers, parenting and child outcomes across development from toddlerhood to emerging adulthood in the context of families. Collectively, this work contributes to social work research and practice fields by informing interventions aimed at promoting positive father engagement and parenting practices.
The first paper uses a longitudinal approach with a large sample of over 5,000 families from the Building Strong Families Study to examine the relationship between marital conflict reported separately by mother and fathers and child problem behaviors at age three. The second paper also examines child outcomes but during adolescence using data from NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. The authors examine the effects of depression among fathers and mothers on externalizing and internalizing adolescent behaviors and the mediating role of parenting behavior (warmth, hostility, and monitoring). The third paper uses data with over 1,000 stepchildren who lived in a stepfamily consisting predominantly of stepfathers and biological mothers during childhood or adolescence. In this paper, the authors examine the effect of relationship quality (stepparent, biological parents, and child) on stepchildren’s depression and drug and alcohol behaviors and the mediating role of stress associated with family formation.
The first paper found that mothers’, but not fathers’, perceptions of destructive marital conflict were associated with negative child outcomes. The second paper found direct associations between fathers’ depression and both externalizing and internalizing outcomes among adolescent children, as well as a mediating effect of paternal parenting behavior (hostility and monitoring). Maternal depression had no direct effects on children’s outcomes operating exclusively through parenting behaviors that were associated with internalized behavioral problems. The third paper found that stepparent- and parent-child relationship quality was negatively associated with stress among stepchildren and further, that stress was associated with depression and drug-related risk behavior in young adulthood. Themes across the results of these papers indicate complex interplay of direct and indirect effects of fathers and fathering on child wellbeing that are dependent upon family structure and systems.
Taken together, a central theme of these papers is that fathers and mothers uniquely influence the outcomes of children and do so with significant variation. Future research should continue to advance the social work knowledge base by including both mother and father reports of behavior related to children’s outcomes, and by obtaining objective measures to independently evaluate the differential contributions that mothers and fathers make to their children’s lives across diverse family types.