I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at a recent research paper on father absence. My purpose in posting this study is to remind people to think about what children need when making relationship decisions. Fathers are more of a necessity for children than a nice-to-have.
The paper about a large-scale study was posted at NCBI NIH.
The abstract says:
The literature on father absence is frequently criticized for its use of cross-sectional data and methods that fail to take account of possible omitted variable bias and reverse causality. We review studies that have responded to this critique by employing a variety of innovative research designs to identify the causal effect of father absence, including studies using lagged dependent variable models, growth curve models, individual fixed effects models, sibling fixed effects models, natural experiments, and propensity score matching models. Our assessment is that studies using more rigorous designs continue to find negative effects of father absence on offspring well-being, although the magnitude of these effects is smaller than what is found using traditional cross-sectional designs. The evidence is strongest and most consistent for outcomes such as high school graduation, children’s social-emotional adjustment, and adult mental health.
I was curious to see what specific problems fatherlessness causes for children, according to this redo of previous studies.
The conclusion explains:
The body of knowledge about the causal effects of father absence on child well-being has grown during the early twenty-first century as researchers have increasingly adopted innovative methodological approaches to isolate causal effects. We reviewed 47 such articles and find that, on the whole, articles that take one of the more rigorous approaches to handling the problems of omitted variable bias and reverse causality continue to document negative effects of father absence on child well-being, though these effects are stronger during certain stages of the life course and for certain outcomes.
We find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalizing behavior. These effects may be more pronounced if father absence occurs during early childhood than during middle childhood, and they may be more pronounced for boys than for girls. There is weaker evidence of an effect of father absence on children’s cognitive ability.
Effects on social-emotional development persist into adolescence, for which we find strong evidence that father absence increases adolescents’ risky behavior, such as smoking or early childbearing. The evidence of an effect on adolescent cognitive ability continues to be weaker, but we do find strong and consistent negative effects of father absence on high school graduation. The latter finding suggests that the effects on educational attainment operate by increasing problem behaviors rather than by impairing cognitive ability.
The research base examining the longer-term effects of father absence on adult outcomes is considerably smaller, but here too we see the strongest evidence for a causal effect on adult mental health, suggesting that the psychological harms of father absence experienced during childhood persist throughout the life course. The evidence that father absence affects adult economic or family outcomes is much weaker. A handful of studies find negative effects on employment in adulthood, but there is little consistent evidence of negative effects on marriage or divorce, on income or earnings, or on college education.
Despite the robust evidence that father absence affects social-emotional outcomes throughout the life course, these studies also clearly show a role for selection in the relationship between family structure and child outcomes. In general, estimates from IFE, SFE, and PSM models are smaller than those from conventional models that do not control for selection bias. Similarly, studies that compare parental death and divorce often find that even if both have significant effects on well-being, the estimates of the effect of divorce are larger than those of parental death, which can also be read as evidence of partial selection.
Right now, we’re living in a time where people think that it’s ok to do whatever they feel like doing. People seem to treat relationships as if they are meant to provide the grown-ups with satisfaction, and the needs of the children are often neglected. Any kind of warning or appeal to evidence is dismissed by those who want to bend and break the rules.
Well, when you take a look at the studies, you actually find that there are rules about how to go about relationships in order to achieve results. It seems to me that children’s needs ought to be an important consideration when making relationship decisions. Men shouldn’t have babies with bad mothers, and women shouldn’t have babies with bad fathers. It ought to be an important criterion for choosing a mate and conducting a relationship: are we making decisions protecting children and giving them what they need?
And it turns out that there are studies that tell you how to prepare for making a stable commitment, too. Like this one, which found that the number of premarital sex partners reduces relationship stability and quality. This is just an example, there are many more studies that provide a lot more information about how to do things right.
I think today, people want to make decisions about what to do based on feelings. If it feels good, do it. But this approach doesn’t work anywhere in life. It doesn’t work when choosing a major, when choosing a job, when choosing how to spend money. It just never works. Nothing useful is ever achieved by putting feelings above reason and evidence.
People shouldn’t be surprised when they break the rules and then get negative outcomes. It just takes a little reading first to find out what is likely to work and what isn’t. There are real victims to bad decisions. There are mistakes that can’t be fixed with happy talk and a positive attitude. We seem to have gotten addicted to the idea that every damaging mistake can be fixed by making everyone around say happy words about the mistake. But the truth is that when you make bad decisions, the damage exists independently of what people say about it.
It’s not the mean people making moral judgments that causes fatherless kids to have higher anxiety or be more violent or get pregnant earlier or abuse drugs. It’s the fatherlessness. The only hope that children have to avoid the consequences of bad decisions by parents is for the moral people to set boundaries and teach moral wisdom with evidence.