Monday, January 5, 2009

Study: Where are the fathers?

I'm thinking of beginning a series of posts under the title above. The idea is to look at studies that might naturally have included fathers--but which examined only mothers.

For example: A recent study by Deborah Laible and Tia Panfile in Child Development looked at conflicts between mothers and toddlers when the kids were 30 months old, and at 36 months old. It found that mother-child conflict was marked by more resolution and compromise when mothers and toddlers were more securely attached. And it found that children's temperatments were related to the kind of mother-child conflict, and its frequency. Interesting.

You might argue that it's fair to look at mothers and children in this study, and perhaps to study fathers at another time, in another paper. And I wouldn't disagree. But the setup to the paper talks about parents, not mothers. And yet the research was done exclusively on mothers.

From the study's introductory paragraphs:

"Conflict between young children and their parents [emphasis mine]" is normal and frequent during the preschool years.

"Parents with young children are engaged in conflict with them on average between 3 ½ to 15 times an hour."

"Children may learn important lessons out of these early conflicts with parents."

I have no business telling Laible and Panfile what kind of study to do; if they want to study mothers exclusively, that's up to them. But all the background they cite relates to parents, not just mothers. Did they think about including fathers? I asked Laible in an email.

"We did do audio recordings across dinner and dinner often included mothers and fathers," she emailed back. "In listening to the audiotapes, it did seem like the nature of father-toddler conflict was very similar to mother-toddler conflict." She said she would expect similar findings with fathers. "There were also some interesting three-way conflicts with fathers, mothers, and toddlers," she said.

That might have prompted her and Panfile to look at fathers; but no. "Honestly," she wrote, "we didn't look at fathers at all or take them into account."

The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.


  1. So begins another foray into the cultural minefield that is gender roles and parenting in America (known in some circles as the "Mommy Wars." As a guy who took on some of the traditional female roles in parenting (cooking, some cleaning, school/homework management)I have been following this for years and it never ceases to amaze me how deep and powerful some of the cultural issues are here. To get a taste, look at the comments to today's (typically named) NYT parenting blog "Motherlode": . The blog item is about the shocking news that a man has become the president of the national PTA for the first time. This is greated with a mixture of people cheering because the "revolutionary" nature of this event, combined various arguments for why it is inappropriate. And this is from the NYT audience, not from a conservative audience. It does not shock me that academics suffer from the same pervasive biases.

  2. I agree, Jim, that we, as parents, have a lot more to talk about. My hope is that this blog, and comments like yours, will encourage that discussion.

  3. My partner and I are both deeply committed to egalitarian parenting, and we've both been a little shocked to see how much emphasis there is on mothers, and how often fathers are just forgotten--I'm talking in public discourse more than in research studies (although obviously it's true there, too). We have a child with Down syndrome, and a lot of the ds support in this area is structured around mothers--mothers' groups, mothers' get togethers, etc. It's been a bit troubling for both of us.

  4. my husband absolutely sucks as a father! He brings home a paycheck-that's it. He has no interest in being a role model, or considering how his behavior and attitude models to his children. He has no particpation in teaching, training or discipline. He never shows affection or talks to his children about anything but sports. I have tried to talk with him, but it falls on a hard heart. Now my chidre nwho are now teems, see their father as wimpy, emotionally unavailalbe, incompetent and only as as ATM or sounding board for sports. THe eldest daughter is a great kid! Has been a parent's dream! My son is undisciplined, lazy, procrastinates, moody...however both are excellent students and good athletes, and generally good people, but my son is a challenge sometimes. I could never be a good enough mother to make up for such a crappy father....I wish fathers understood how important they are in their children's lives!MY children needed their father and I feel sad it's too late now. It makes me very angry at my husband...but he has shitty parents too.