By NINA LUCAS and JAN NICHOLSON
The media often blame a lot of society’s problems on the break down of traditional family structures and the increase in single parent homes.
When fathers no longer live at home, policy makers focus on child support and residential arrangements as the best ways to help children and parents cope after separation. Courts allocate time with children to each parent, and governments legislate child support payments based on time allocations.
Quality not quantity
Research increasingly suggests that the quality of non-resident fathers’ relationships with their children is as important as the time they spend together.
A 1999 review found that children had fewer behavioural and emotional problems when they had a close relationship with a non-resident father, or when their father had a warm affectionate parenting style balanced by consistent expectations and limit setting.
Our new research extends these findings.
We examined the wellbeing of 302 8 to 9 year old children with a non-resident father, using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
We defined wellbeing as the absence of behavioural and emotional difficulties, and measured it using the results from a standard questionnaire used to pinpoint problems in this area.
We considered a wide range of factors as potential drivers of child wellbeing, including socioeconomic circumstances, mothers’ and fathers’ parenting practices, mothers’ and fathers’ mental health, and parental conflict.
Confidence and engagement
The key finding was that children were better off when their fathers were confident in their parenting role, when they were highly engaged in parenting decisions, and when they exhibited positive parenting behaviours.
Importantly, these relationships occurred irrespective of the amount of father-child contact, suggesting that fathers can enhance child wellbeing even if the time they spend with their child is limited.
We also found that non-resident fathers sometimes reported better parenting than resident fathers. They reported higher warmth toward their children, and were more likely explain the consequences of behaviour with their child.
Clearly, then, not all non-resident fathers fit the stereotype of being disengaged dads.
These findings have implications for Australian policy. Just over 1 million, or 22% of Australian children aged 0-17 years had a non-resident biological parent in 2006-07, and the majority (82%) of these parents were fathers.
Governments then would help a large number of children by encouraging positive involvement with their non-resident fathers.
Some policy changes have already been made. The Family Law Amendment of 2006 encouraged long-term involvement of both parents by encouraging shared parenting responsibility.
Several government departments have also released publications aiming to help families reduce conflict, and maintain positive relationships after divorce. For instance the Child Support Agency released “Me, my kids and my ex: forming a workable relationship for the benefit of your kids” which gives practical tips to both parents.