Fatherhood policy failures should lead to more child development research
Photo: Thomas Hawk. Creative Commons.

Fatherhood policy failures call for broader child development research

By Jack O'Sullivan and , | December 2018 

Governments struggle to support positive, engaged fatherhood. Macroeconomics and political science might help explain what’s delaying policy reform. 

Fatherhood is central to raising children well. That’s an overwhelming message from half a dozen of the world’s leading researchers who have contributed to the Child and Family Blog.

There is compelling evidence that positive, engaged fatherhood walks hand in hand with good child development. Indeed, we’ve known for over 30 years that positive fatherhood in the early years is one of the best predictors of a child’s later success, explains Charlie Lewis.

Barriers to fatherhood

Yet almost everywhere, fathers face high, stubborn barriers to looking after their children – at work, in public services, in law, and at home. The media often paints them as incompetent, absent and largely irrelevant at best. Governments offer little support to caring fatherhood.

Most worrying, the barriers are highest for dads on low incomes – those whose positive involvement can make most difference to their children’s development. These men can offer help to children that they may find nowhere else.

“The institutional barriers to fatherhood remain. They represent a substantial malfunctioning of child development policy.”

Low-income dads can stretch their children linguistically, asking ‘who, why, where, what’ questions, finds Natasha Cabrera’s research. Their rough and tumble play helps children to learn to read emotions and regulate their behaviours. Fatherhood can be vital for narrowing the gap between their children’s school readiness and that of better-off peers.

Child development policy fails low income fathers

Yet precisely these low-income fathers receive the least support in raising their young. They miss out on leave benefits that don’t apply to the casualised work of the poorly paid. Likewise, these benefits may be unavailable to struggling non-citizens, explains Philip Hwang, and low-income dads are often marginalised by public services.

Mothers on welfare are financially penalised if they cohabit with their child’s father, notes Ross Parke. The state’s message to the impoverished dad seems to be: ‘If you can’t pay, then don’t stay.’ In the long run, that can mean he’s not involved with his kids.

Meanwhile, policy largely ignores lessons from Nordic countries about the success of lengthy ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ leave arrangements for dads, as Margaret O’Brien details. And so the institutional barriers to fatherhood remain, suggesting a substantial malfunctioning of child development policy. ‘Policy should be brought into line with what we know and what we say,’ argues Michael Lamb.

Support for motherhood seems easier than support for fatherhood

It’s intriguing that these same governments seem able to design policies that support motherhood, such as leave and childcare packages for mothers staying in, and returning to, the work force. What explains their persistent failure to support positive, engaged fatherhood? What’s stopping governments from implementing change that experts recognise as good for children?

It’s a question that child development research should answer. But perhaps the skill base examining fatherhood issues – and possibly other child development questions – is too narrow. That’s because the solutions for implementing fatherhood policies may sit less in, for example, developmental psychology than in fields not usually associated with child development: political science and economics.

“Political scientists could explain the dynamics of political systems – in Nordic countries – which have been early adopters of enlightened fatherhood policies.”

There are plenty of behavioural economists looking at child development. Janet Currie at Princeton University, for example, has tested the cost effectiveness of cutting local pollution levels to improve children’s learning. Greg Duncan is testing whether children’s cognitive and behavioural development in disadvantaged families is improved by cutting poverty – giving their parents an extra $4,000 a year for the first 40 months.

Apply broader disciplines to child development research

But macroeconomics tends to stay clear of fatherhood. Political scientists are also rarely present in the research debate. But their insights might bridge the gulf between existing child development evidence and more widespread adoption of policies supporting positive fatherhood.

Without their research, one is left to speculate about what’s going wrong. It may be that governments see policies that support positive fatherhood as at odds with a key goal: keeping their economies well-supplied with affordable workers. This goal may be good for families, providing vital income. It’s also consistent with policies designed for mothers that increase their participation in the job market. But backing engaged fatherhood is more problematic.

When fathers identify more as carers, they may shift from their traditional focus as workers. They may, then, prefer to work less, behaving more like mothers, for whom wage labour competes with the rewards of engaged parent-child relationships. In economic terms, increased caring fatherhood could be seen as equivalent in impact to a constraint on the labour supply.

In short, governments, driven by strategies for high employment, may have little incentive to support policies that shift fathers’ focus closer to home. It might even be said that most dads are exactly where most governments want them to be – at work. And if they’re not, the main option that policy typically gives them is to look for work.

This is why we need to learn more from macroeconomics about the wider and longer-term economic gains and losses that spring from supporting caring fatherhood. Insights from political scientists are also required to explain the dynamics of the Nordic countries’ political systems which have been early adopters of enlightened fatherhood policies.

We need to understand what’s inspiring them and what’s holding up the rest of the world. Optimising child development demands a more thorough understanding of what might encourage governments to implement father-friendly policies.

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