Involving Non-Resident Fathers In Children's Learning

Chapter 2:
The Role of Non-Resident Fathers

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“First, I want to say that the vast majority of unwed fathers are strongly attached to their families, at least at birth. These men want to help raise their child, and the mothers want their help…. Over half of the parents in our study [in Austin, Texas and Oakland, California] were living together when their child was born, and 80 percent were romantically involved. Over three-quarters expect to marry. Three-quarters of the fathers provided support during the pregnancy, and nine of ten mothers plan to put the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate. Ninety percent of mothers want the father to be involved in raising their child. In short, unwed parents have high hopes for the future of their families.”

– McLanahan, 1999.

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Rene Sterling

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Who are non-resident fathers?

Non-resident fathers fit many different profiles

A non-resident father is a parent who does not live in the same household as his child. A non-resident father may be divorced, separated or never-married to the child’s mother. Some non-resident fathers have very good relationships with their child’s mother. Other non-resident fathers have difficult and strained relationships that make it hard for the parents to work together to promote the best interests of their child. Some non-resident fathers see their children every day. Other non-resident fathers may have court-ordered visitation that allows parenting time only once or twice a month. Some non-resident fathers have joint legal custody which allows them to participate in making decisions about their child’s life. Other non-resident fathers have visitation arrangements or shared parenting time, but the custodial parent has the decision-making responsibility.

For many non-resident fathers, especially those not married to the child’s mother, there has never been a legal determination of paternity, custody, visitation or child support. There are circumstances in which legal status is important to consider, such as when there is a restraining order against a non-resident parent. For the most part, however, legal status is not an indicator of a non-resident father’s ability or desire to support and encourage his children’s learning and educational achievement or of children’s need for their father to be part of their life.

The number of children with non-resident fathers is growing

Increases in divorce, separation, non-marital childbearing, and incarceration over the past several decades have contributed to the rise of children living all or part of their lives in father-absent households. This phenomenon is not limited to any particular racial, ethnic, or income group and it is found in urban, suburban, or rural areas. In 1960, less than 8 million children under age 18 were living in families where the father was absent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). Today, nearly 20 million children under age 18 now live in a home without a father (U.S. Bureau of the Census). In 1998, almost a quarter (23 percent) of minor children lived with only their mothers, 4 percent lived with only their fathers, and 4 percent lived with neither of their parents (U.S. Bureau of the Census).

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How can non-resident fathers stay involved with their children?

Paternity establishment offers opportunities to strengthen father-child bonds

An unmarried father can establish a legal right to a relationship with his child by establishing paternity. All states offer parents the opportunity to voluntarily acknowledge a child’s paternity until the age of 18. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement states that, “Once paternity is established legally, a child gains legal rights and privileges. Among these may be rights to inheritance, rights to the father’s medical and life insurance benefits, and to social security and possibly veterans’ benefits. The child also has a chance to develop a relationship with the father, and to develop a sense of identity and connection to the ‘other half’ of his or her family” (Office of Child Support Enforcement, 1997, p. 11). Furthermore, a father cannot be ordered to pay child support for a child born to unwed parents until paternity has been established.

Non-resident fathers rarely have joint physical custody but most have visitation agreements or parenting time

While more fathers are being awarded legal custody of their children, the U.S. Bureau of the Census reports that the majority (85 percent) of custodial parents are mothers (Scoon-Rogers, 1999, p. 1). Most non-custodial parents have some form of legal access to their children, for example, through voluntary or court-ordered visitation agreements in child support orders. In 1996, about 10.6 million (77 percent) of the 13.7 million non-custodial parents not living with their children had formal provisions for joint custody and/or visitation (Scoon-Rogers, p. 3).

Shared parenting allows many non-resident fathers to remain active in children’s lives

Many non-resident fathers do have ongoing contact with their children. While Nord and Zill (1996a) note that, “studies have shown that the amount of contact non-residential fathers have with their children diminishes over time (Furstenberg et al., 1983; Furstenberg & Nord, 1985; Seltzer & Bianchi, 1988),” they also report that,”…approximately one-quarter (23.8 percent) of non-resident fathers see their children at least once a week” (p. 31).

According to reports from mothers, non-resident fathers were more likely to visit their children if they had ever been married to the mother, if the custodial mother was more educated, and if child support agreements were voluntary instead of court-ordered (Nord & Zill, p. 31).

Distance also plays a role, “The proportion of non-residential parents who had any visits with their children in the previous year was 75.2 percent for those living in the same city or county, 69.9 percent for those living in the same state, and 59.8 percent for those living in a different state” (Nord & Zill, p. 40).

Schools and programs help non-resident fathers share their children’s lives

Many school-aged children have at least some contact with their non-resident fathers. In their analysis of the 1996 National Household Education Survey, Nord et al. (1997) found that 75 percent of children in kindergarten through 12th grade with non-resident fathers had contact with their fathers in the past year,while “[i]n the early 1980s, it was estimated that just over half of children ages 6 to 17 years with non-resident fathers had had contact with their fathers in the past year (Furstenberg et al., 1983)” (p. 63). Moreover, nearly a third (31 percent) of the non-resident fathers in the 1996 survey participated in at least one of four types of school activities, most commonly a school or class event (p. 64).

Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, and Levine (as cited in Tamis-LeMonda and Cabrera, 1999, p. 6) suggest three important dimensions of father involvement that programs and schools can encourage:

  1. Engagement – a father’s experience of direct contact and shared interactions with his child in the form of caretaking, play, or leisure;
  2. Accessibility – a father’s presence and availability to the child, irrespective of the nature or extent of interactions between father and child; and
  3. Responsibility – a father’s understanding and meeting of his child’s needs, including the provision of economic resources to the child, and the planning and organizing of children’s lives.

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How do non-resident fathers encourage child development?

A man named Ron stood over his ancient and rusted lawn mower. Fourteen years of weekly mowings and continual repairs had finally culminated in this: the mower wouldn’t start. Not a sputter, not a spark. And now Ron was drenched with sweat. He grabbed the pull cord for one more yank, and SNAP! – it broke. That did it! He stepped back and gave the mower a good, hard kick. Then, as he stood there stewing in frustration, he heard the sound of his own two-year-old son, who was now pushing his own little plastic mower through the tall grass. Sure enough, the boy reared back and kicked that little mower, just like his dad.

Fathers model behavior and social survival skills

Every father, whether he knows it or not, provides an example of how to deal with life, how to dress, how to blend personal closeness and distance, and the importance of achievement and productivity (Vogt & Sirridge, 1991, p. 119). Fathers also model devotion to something higher and greater than one self (Vogt & Sirridge, p. 123). Studies show that positive paternal involvement, for boys and girls, is closely associated with a lower incidence of disruptive behavior, more responsible behavior, and thus more pro-social, positive moral behavior overall (Mosley & Thompson as cited in Pruett, 2000, p. 52).

Positive father-child relationships enhance children’s emotional development

“He taught me moral values…basically, you work and be honest…there was six of us kids and we lived in a four bedroom house. And as I look back now I often wonder how he did it, because we never did go hungry.” – Early Head Start father, (Raikes, Mellgren, McAllister, Pan, & Summers, 1999).

Biller and Radin have observed that, “child development is positively affected in measurable ways by (1) the father’s warmth, even when he’s not especially involved, (2) his masculinity alone, and (3) his different-from-mother socialization and relationship behavior” (as cited in Pruett, 2000, p. 38). Furstenberg and Harris found that, “Children who feel a closeness to their father are twice as likely as those who do not to enter college or find stable employment after high school, 75 percent less likely to have a teen birth, 80 percent less likely to spend time in jail, and half as likely to experience multiple depression symptoms” (as cited in Pruett, p. 38). Studies show that highly-involved fathers often produce children with increased cognitive competence, increased empathy, less sex-stereotyped beliefs, and a more internal locus of control (Radin as cited in Pruett, pp. 43-44, 48-49, 72). Moreover, the strongest predictor of a child’s feelings of empathic concern for others in adult life is a high level of paternal child care (Koestner, Franz, & Weinberger as cited in Pruett, p. 48).

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How is the definition of fatherhood expanding?

Many men are stepping into the role of “father”

Tamis-LeMonda and Cabrera (1999) note that,“A father then can be ‘biological’ and/or ‘social’; he can be ‘legal’ or ‘nonlegal’” (p. 4). Each definition has implications for both father and child. They state that, “A biological father is one who through either paternity establishment or self-report identifies a child as his own,” while a ‘social’ father, such as a male relative, friend, or non-marital partner, establishes his role by taking responsibility for a child “like a father” (p. 4). Legal fathers, such as “[d]ivorced fathers with joint legal custody have the right to make decisions about their children’s lives, regardless of where the children live” (Seltzer as cited in Tamis-LeMonda and Cabrera, p. 4). In contrast, stepfathers who live with their stepchildren but have not adopted them, or unmarried fathers who have not established paternity, have no legal status regarding the children.

Some men serve as father figures

It is important to acknowledge that children can benefit from positive relationships not only with their non-resident fathers, but also with other father figures and male role models. Male family members and significant others (e.g., grandfather, uncle, older brother, stepfather, friend, non-marital partner), mentors, practitioners, and teachers can contribute substantially to a child’s ability to learn and grow. Schools and programs that recognize and utilize the power of these relationships can create more successful learning environments for all children.

But children still need and want fathers

No matter how one defines fatherhood, Nord and Zill (1996b) point out that, “Children seem to desire a continuing relationship with their fathers…There is some evidence that the perceived emotional bond that children feel for their parents is more predictive of well-being than actual contact (Amato, 1994b). For these reasons, even if studies show no positive benefit of paternal participation on children’s well-being, the children’s expressed wishes to see their fathers should not be taken lightly” (pp. A-11-12).


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Home Pages:
HHS Fatherhood Initiative
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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Last updated: 02/28/01