'Life without father: What happens to the children?' is explored in Contexts, ASA's magazine

March 27, 2002

Why do children raised without their fathers run serious risks? Sara McLanahan, Princeton University explores this issue in an article, "Life without Father: What Happens to the Children," in Contexts, the newest journal of the American Sociological Association. Answering this question can help shape productive policies and perhaps quiet the culture war raging around single parenthood.

Since the 1980s, a new consensus holds that, although most children of divorced parents do all right, growing up without a father increases the risk of numerous undesirable outcomes. For example, girls from father absent families are more likely to become sexually active at a younger age and to have a child outside of marriage. Boys who grow up without their fathers are more likely to have trouble finding (and keeping) a job in young adulthood. Research studies also indicate that the penalties associated with single parenthood appear to be more or less similar for children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Whether or not these outcomes are caused by the divorce itself, as opposed to something else about the family, remains controversial. In sum, the evidence is mixed with respect to whether divorce causes children to have problems, or whether the problems associated with divorce are due to poor parenting or even poor genes.

McLanahan concludes that three general factors account for the disadvantages associated with father absence: economic deprivation, poor parenting, and lack of social support. She also discusses social policy approaches that could help to reduce potential harm for father-absent children, such as making sure that policies do not discourage marriage, and insisting that fathers support their children even when they live elsewhere. Policies that strengthen fragile families (defined as unmarried parents who are raising a child together) also could have potential benefits for children in these unions.

Complementing the McLanahan analysis of these issues is a photo essay by Dona Schwartz, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Minnesota.
Further information on Contexts can be found on its webpage at www.contextsmagazine.org. Media interested in a copy should contact Johanna Ebner, ASA Public Information Office, at (202) 383-9005 x320 or e-mail pubinfo@asanet.org.

American Sociological Association

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