Father Involvement Research Alliance Conference Canada October 2008

29 November 2008

For many in the father-work field, one of the underlying assumptions about what we do is that fathers are in some way essential to children, and that this has something to do with their gender. So to hear that one of the world’s major fatherhood researchers is questioning this assumption might seem, at first, to be bad news.

And that is certainly how some of the 200-plus international audience of researchers and practitioners at last month’s Father Involvement Research Conference in Toronto, Canada, reacted when Joseph Pleck – Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois and one of the ‘godfathers’ of father involvement research – challenged some of the most strongly held contentions about why father involvement promotes child and adolescent development.

Towards a new way of theorising about dads…

Professor Pleck’s keynote speech at the event focused on presenting a critique of theoretical perspectives on the relationship between father involvement and child outcomes. This may sound ‘heavy’ but in reality what he was talking about involves unpicking the ‘baggage’ many of us bring to our work. His ideas could have implications for the way all of us approach what we do.

Unpicking attachment theory

Take ‘attachment theory’ – in common parlance, the idea that father involvement may promote child development because it promotes secure infant attachment to the father, which in turn promotes good child outcomes, through processes hypothesized by attachment theorists.

Professor Pleck argued that attachment theory has limitations. One of these is that although the consequences of attachment for the developing individual are viewed as lasting until at least the young adult years, the period during which parental involvement is viewed as directly influencing attachment is restricted to the child’s earliest years. So pinning everything on the idea of attachment is not much use if you’re looking to explain or understand why paternal (or maternal) involvement with older children, or adolescents, matters.

Furthermore, he added, in the academic field of human development, attachment theory is actually quite controversial: so if you’re looking for a solid, unquestionable theory on which to hang your entire career motivation, you might have to look elsewhere.

‘Essential father’ theory

Next on the hitlist was ‘essential father theory’ – in other words, the idea that fathers make a contribution that is essential and unique, and that their uniqueness rests on their male gender.

Here Professor Pleck questioned the validity of research that compares outcomes between children raised by single mothers and single fathers – stressing that this confounded two issues: the presence/absence of a parent of a particular gender and the fact that only one parent (of whatever gender) was available.

In this respect, he argued, a much better way of looking at it is to compare child outcomes between two-parent heterosexual families and two-parent lesbian families: as in Wainwright, Russell and Patterson’s 2004 study, which failed to find more negative outcomes in the lesbian sample, and in fact found several more positive outcomes for the children brought up by lesbian couples.

Bad news for dads? Not at all! The problem with thinking of fathers’ importance in terms of their bringing of something unique and uniquely male to the table is, Professor Pleck argued, that it assumes a complete non-overlap between mothers’ and fathers’ input, as well as ignoring the heterogeneity among fathers that we know exists. What about the gay/bisexual/transgender dads? Or the ones who are not good at sport? Or the ones who don’t do ‘rough and tumble’ play?

So what’s Pleck’s alternative?

Professor Pleck’s alternative formulation is that instead of looking at fathers as essential, unique and uniquely male, we should view them as making a vitally important contribution to child outcomes, in varying forms.

His new foundation for theorising about exactly how fathering promotes, or does not promote, development is based on two separate theories. One, Bronfenbrenner’s ‘ecological theory’, talks about human development in terms of different ‘systems’, like concentric circles, surrounding the child.

So for example there are ‘microsystems’: face-to-face relationships with parents, siblings, teacher, etc; ‘mesosystems’: relationships between the microsystem partners, for example between mother and father, or between parent and teacher; ‘exosystems’: relationships which affect the child but in which they themselves are not directly involved, for example the father’s relationship with their boss; ‘macrosystems’: social policies and cultural scripts that influence the inner systems; and ‘chronosystems’: historical change in the systems described, and the child’s development with time through all these systems. These systems are all nested within each other, like a Russian doll.

Bronfenbrenner also talked about what it is about microsystem relationships that drives development: that is, progressively more complex, reciprocal interactions between active, evolving children and the people and other factors around them; something he termed ‘proximal process’.

With Bronfenbrenner as the backdrop, Professor Pleck then makes us of ‘social capital’ theory – which posits the idea that parents provide, as well as financial capital to support their children and facilitate optimal development, something called ‘social capital’. This exists in two forms: ‘family social capital’, which is effectively all about parenting behaviour that promotes ‘socialisation’ – having them prepared for school when they reach that age, and having educational aspirations, for example; and ‘community social capital’, which involves advocating for the child in the wider world, being able to find them that all important work experience post at the BBC – that sort of thing.

In Professor Pleck’s formulation, the Bronfenbrenner and social capital theories combine as follows…

Both fathers and mothers (and other adults) potentially contribute material capital, family social capital (socialization), and community social capital to their children’s development. In some cases it may be possible to generalise about gendered differences in contribution – for example, fathers on average earn more than mothers and therefore may provide more material capital on average.

But there are many as-yet-unanswered questions, for example about within-gender variations and variations between different ecological contexts (for example where there is a co-resident father versus non-coresident; where there are different religious/cultural contexts).

This, Professor Pleck holds, is where research needs to focus its efforts, and his ideas provide an interesting standpoint from which practitioners can approach and develop their work. Perhaps, his formation suggests, we should be emphasising the huge role fathers can play in their children’s lives, but stripping away from that the notion that it is thanks to their gender that they become special and important. By ‘overselling’ fathers’ contributions as essential, unique and uniquely male perhaps we are setting fathers, and ourselves, up to fail?

Other interesting approaches presented at the event…

1. Emphasising the personal benefits of fatherhood

Rob Palkowitz, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Delaware talked about the need to emphasise to fathers the benefits that active engagement in fatherhood can have for them personally – as well as for their children.

Research has shown, he argued, that engaged fathering creates ‘better people’ and that in many cases people find, through fatherhood, ways of improving their lives for the benefit of themselves, their spouses/partners and their children.

Some examples of the benefits fatherhood can bring, he said, are:

  • The satisfaction of watching your children grow up and accomplish things
  • Getting love back from the children
  • Fun
  • A reason to ‘grind at the grindstone’
  • Continued learning
  • Emotional regulation and expression
  • Community engagement – "suddenly becoming interested in the issue of speed bumps"
  • Enhanced social networks – meeting more people, albeit on a more shallow level
  • Greater interest in health (of the child and also oneself)

Professor Palkowitz went on to outline three things that always matter in fathering, regardless of who the father is and the context in which he is operating. These are:

  • The affective climate – connection, attachment, warmth, trust, provision, protection
  • Behavioural style – active engagement, moderation, modelling, answering questions, monitoring
  • Relational synchrony – developmental appropriateness and sensitivity, being tuned into other people’s signals, teaching, capitalising on children’s emerging interests.

As fathers engage in improving the quality of these three components, they develop competencies they never knew they had, he suggested. The challenge facing practitioners is to persuade dads to engage with this learning process.

2. ‘Other fathers’ in black communities

Wanda Thomas Barnard, Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University gave a presentation based on her research on, and personal experience of, fatherhood within black communities – both in the US and, via her doctoral research in Sheffield, in the UK. A fully paid-up subscriber to the view that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ (a phrase which, she clarified, came from an old African proverb rather than the brain of Hillary Clinton), Professor Barnard stressed that black communities do value family and, in a context of often extreme and systemic marginalisation, work harder than many other communities at ensuring children are brought up by a range of adults, including their fathers.

In Professor Barnard’s research, 55% of participants said fathers were active and present in their lives, and while she acknowledged that 47% of black children in Canada grow up in single parent families, she stressed that the myths that flow from this statistic – that black mothers are raising their children alone, that black men are a negative influence, and that black men are violent and dangerous – must be challenged.

What matters is ‘good’, reflective parenting, by mothers, fathers and what Professor Barnard called ‘other mothers’ and ‘other fathers’: family or community members who play significant roles in children’s upbringing (and have done so, she argued, since the Slave Trade set a precedent for separating individuals and couples from their children).

There are many factors that help create father absence, she said, including structural conditions, racism and poverty, the welfare state, incarceration and death – and the lived experience of this for many black fathers is hugely challenging. We need to acknowledge the factors that push men away from childcare roles and make room for their involvement, she argued – and at the same time welcome black men’s collective consciousness about being role models and mentors to other people’s children as well as to their own.

3. Men as mothers

Andrea Doucet, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University, talked about fathers, mothers and ‘maternal gatekeeping’. Professor Doucet has for some years been exploring the idea of whether men ‘mother’: in other words, unpicking what it is that makes mothers and fathers interchangeable – or not.

She talked about what some of her research participants – stay-at-home dads – have described as the female-dominated world of childcare (what one dad described as “oestrogen-filled worlds”). She also discussed the way that mothers can as gatekeepers set high standards, promote/accept gender-differentiated parenting and seek maternal identity confirmation – and through this either encourage or hinder father involvement.

And she called for researchers and practitioners to work against viewing what mothers and fathers do as parents through maternal lenses. In this respect breadwinning and care need to be seen through the same prism, she argued – and some of the parenting work that can all-too-easily be dismissed as ‘dad stuff’, like teaching children how to ride a bike, be valued as important tasks that involve a complex mix of teaching, sensitivity and risk-encouragement; all things that might be missed if viewed through maternal lenses.

To access the main presentations and workshops delivered at the conference, visit http://www.fira.ca/.