The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Time with the Children

Research to date suggests that fathers can contribute to their children’s well-being, even when the fathers don’t live at home—but not always in ways you would expect.

Jeong-Kyun Choi, an assistant professor of social work at Winona State University in Minnesota, looked at the influence of non-resident fathers on poor, single-mother families. He examined how the fathers’ efforts, such as playing games and reading stories, affected their children’s behavior and cognitive development. His findings suggest that the fathers’ efforts helped not so much for their effect on the children as on the mother.

In short, the fathers’ parenting helped the children primarily by making the mother a better parent. That the effect is indirect reflects the much greater influence that a  single mother has over her children than the father, Choi says.

Choi’s conclusions spring from an analysis of data gleaned from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, which followed 4,998 children randomly selected from all U.S. cities with a population over 200,000. Choi’s study focused on a subset of 1,373 poor families across the country headed by single mothers. The data came from interviews with mothers over several years.

Choi’s study doesn’t reveal how the father’s influence works, but he has some ideas. “The mother might be very stressed because of parenting and holding a job,” he says. “The father can visit from time to time, and this might alleviate the mother’s parenting stress and improve her parenting efficacy.”

Choi says relatively few studies have looked at poor single-parent families, even though such families are often the focus of public policy and debate. Even fewer have looked at fathers. “The father’s role has been ignored or seen as residual,” he says.

Choi’s article, “Non-resident Fathers’ Parenting, Family Processes, and Children’s Development in Urban, Poor, Single-Mother Families,” is part of a broader investigation into the influence of non-resident fathers on their children. His next study compares fathers’ parenting—how they engage their children—with frequency of contact and level of financial support. Choi is also examining how uncles, boyfriends and other potential father figures may affect children’s behavior and development. 

Choi, Jeong-Kyun. 2010. “Nonresident Fathers’ Parenting, Family Processes, and Children’s Development in Urban, Poor, Single-Mother Families.” Social Service Review 84 (4): 655-77.