Not necessarily. In a systematic review of published research on the effects of fathers’ absence on children, Future of Children Editor-in-Chief Sara McLanahan and colleagues found that the most rigorously designed studies find negative effects on child wellbeing. The strongest evidence relates to outcomes such as high school graduation, children’s social-emotional adjustment, and mental health in adulthood.
But an important consideration is the nature of the parents’ relationship. In the Fragile Families issue of Future of Children, Robert I. Lerman describes how the capacities and contributions of unwed fathers fall short of those of married fathers, but this varies by the kind of relationship the father has with the child’s mother. Clearly, father-child relationships are crucial, but the quality and stability of these relationships are at risk in fragile families.
Phillip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Virginia Knox consider how to tailor existing couple-relationship and father-involvement interventions, which are traditionally intended for married couples, to the needs of unwed parents in fragile families. The authors emphasize that improving the parental relationship, regardless of whether the parents live together, will in turn have a positive effect on fathers’ involvement. Ultimately, improving the parental relationship might also be among the most promising mechanisms of promoting marriage, which in turn could be an important component of reducing family poverty and improving child wellbeing in fragile families. Fathers are needed, and some fathers could use a little help.
Future of Children will return to the topic of parental relationships and the science of marriage with a full issue dedicated to the subject in Fall 2015.