Historically, stepfathers have been viewed as primarily providers of financial, and not emotional, resources. However, as nonmarital childbearing became more normative in the late 20th century, the roles of social/step-fathers may have changed. We explore the relationship between children’s emotional and behavioral connections to their social and biological fathers and their socioemotional wellbeing and school connectedness.
We aim to answer the following research questions when children are in both middle childhood and adolescence: is closeness to any father figure associated with each outcome (internalizing and externalizing behaviors and school connectedness? Is being close to a particular type of father figure (biological or social) particularly salient? Is engaging in activities with a social father associated with improved outcomes?
We utilize data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a birth cohort study of about 5,000 children born in large US cities between 1998 and 2000. Families were interviewed at the children’s births and ages 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15. Because the study oversampled births to unmarried parents, it is particularly useful for exploring the roles of social fathers. We focus our analyses on the children when they were ages 9 and 15.
At ages 9 and 15, we indicate that a child has a social father if the mother has a coresidential male partner. The child reports their school connectedness on a 4-item scale (which we then standardize) at both ages. The mothers report on children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors using the Child Behavior Checklist at both ages. While the independent and dependent variables are measured contemporaneously, all outcomes are indicative of conditions at the time of the interview while engagement is measured over the prior month allowing for temporal precedence.
We control for baseline characteristics (mom’s age, race, nativity status, education, parents’ relationship, child’s sex) and, at age 15, the child’s age and whether the biofather has been incarcerated.
We examine our data descriptively and run a series of main OLS regression models and sensitivity analyses.
At both ages, about 15% of children in the sample had social fathers. Multivariate results suggest that being close to any father (measured dichotomously and categorically to examine father figure type), social father closeness, and higher activity scores are associated with increased school connectedness. Father-figure closeness and connection are more salient for internalizing behaviors at age 15 than at age 9. Among kids with social fathers, closeness and engagement are associated with decreased externalizing behaviors at age 15 but not age 9.
We test several moderators (whether the child ever sees their biological father, child’s sex, mom’s race, and whether the mom was married to the social father) but none are significant.
Conclusions and Implications
These findings provide important information to social work practitioners and policymakers: social fathers can provide critical support to children and this support can work in conjunction with biofathers’ support (there does not appear to be a substitution effect). Thus, providing families with strategies for parenting with multiple father-figures may be particularly useful.