Methods: We use data from the Building Strong Families (BSF), a study of over 5,000 unmarried couples who enrolled in a relationship strengthening program. On average, BSF participants were racially and ethnically diverse, with high levels of poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage. We limit our sample to families with outcome data at Wave 3 when the child is approximately 36 months old (n = 3,788). Our dependent variables are externalizing (α = 0.84) and internalizing child behavior problems (α = 0.68), measured by the Behavior Problem Index. Independent variables are maternal and paternal warmth also measured at Wave 3 and comprised of three items measuring parents’ self-reported frequency of warm, close times with the child (i.e., How often the parent felt the child liked them, how often the parent felt the child wanted to be near them, how often the parent was in a bad mood but still showed child love) (fathers: α = 0.51; mothers: α = 0.46). We control for maternal and paternal depression, drug and alcohol problems, parenting stress, intimate partner violence, ethnicity and race, education level, age, multiple-partner fertility, employment status, poverty status, residential status of the father, and child’s gender, and low birth weight.
Results: OLS models suggest maternal warmth is consistently associated with fewer child behavior problems. In our full model, each unit increase in maternal warmth is associated with a .10 and .11 unit decrease in internalizing and externalizing child behavior problems, respectively (p < .001). Paternal warmth is not associated with externalizing child behavior problems but is associated with fewer internalizing behavior problems, contingent on his residential status. Among fathers who do not consistently reside with the child, each unit increase in paternal warmth is associated with a .06 unit decrease in internalizing behaviors (p= .006), even after accounting for the strong effects of maternal warmth. Paternal warmth is not associated with child behavior for families with residential fathers.
Conclusions and Implications: This is the first study that examines the role of paternal warmth in a large, diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged sample of unmarried parents with young children. Results suggest that maternal warmth may be more salient in the lives of disadvantaged young children than paternal warmth. Nevertheless, in families where fathers do not consistently reside with their children, higher levels of paternal warmth may buffer young children from developing internalizing behavior problems. An implication for social work intervention is that promoting nonresidential fathers’ positive involvement—specifically increasing levels of paternal warmth—is an important target for intervention with low-income “fragile” families.