By Sissi Aguila
Family roles have changed substantially since the 1950s. Mom now works outside the home. And dad is expected to be more involved in raising the kids. But as parental roles and responsibilities become less defined, psychologists question: Are there essential characteristics of fathering versus mothering?
FIU’s Fatherhood Lab explores these issues and Psychology Professor Gordon Finley, who runs the lab, focuses specifically on how divorce impacts fathers and the development of their children. Finley has found that a father’s role is unique and far too often neglected by the family court system.
Using questionnaires and a retrospective technique in which he asked 1,989 young adults to think back on their relationship with their fathers, Finley found that children of divorce really miss their fathers. According to Finley, they are denied a relationship with them because of present-day family law and court practices.
“Divorce marginalizes or severs a father’s relationship with his child,” he says. “In reality, the father becomes a visitor in his or her life. He is no longer a father in the very literal sense.”
For decades, researchers focused on motherhood when studying parenting. Today more attention is being paid to fathers, and the data is consistently showing that fathers are vital to raising happy, healthy and successful children. “They contribute more than bringing home the bacon,” Finley says.
The statistics are alarming: children from fatherless homes account for 63 percent of youth suicides, 85 percent of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders and 71 percent of all high school dropouts. And 37 percent of fathers have no access or visitation rights to their children.
Finley’s research indicates that fathers are more effective at attenuating high-risk behaviors such as sex, drugs and other criminal activities. These behaviors also involve high social costs.
Yet Finley says that his findings on fatherhood do not match today’s social reality or family policy. In divorce cases, the father rarely gets custody (only in about 15 percent of cases) and shared parenting is not equal. Fathers usually see their children only once a week and two weekends a month.
A girl needs her dad
Finley’s findings also suggest that parent-children relationships are not as much about identification or imitation, as once thought, but about transaction. The way a girl learns to become a woman is through her interaction with her father. That will determine how she will relate to men in her adult life.
His study concluded that girls experience a greater impact by divorce than boys.
“The real cost is actually to the daughters of divorce. They don’t have relationships with their fathers. So when they enter adolescence and start questioning whether to have sex, they don’t have a realistic idea of what men are like.”
When evaluating the consequences of divorce for children, balance is critical, says Finley. Society has a vested interest in balance.
Informing social policy
The take-home message, according to Finley, is simple: “Fathers matter. Children need their fathers and, as it turns out, fathers need their children,” he says.
Divorced fathers are eight to 10 times more likely to commit suicide than divorced mothers. They also are higher on most indices of personal and social distress than divorced mothers.
Social policy, Finley argues, needs to catch up to the research: “Family law should be based on social science research – not ideology.”
Finley is a frequent contributor to journals that influence public policy. His study, “Father Involvement and Long Term Young Adult Outcomes: The Differential Contributions of Divorce and Gender,” was published by Family Court Review, an interdisciplinary communication forum for judges, attorney, mediators and professionals in the mental health and human services.
Earlier this year, Finley’s work provided the background for an article on divorced fathers and their adult offspring written for the American Bar Association’s Family Law Journal by Judith Wallerstein. She is a leading psychologist and researcher who conducted a 25-year study on the effects of divorce on the children involved. Wallerstein has had considerable influence on the California court system.
Says Finley, “Today my goals are to continue research but also to shift the foundation of family policy from outdated ideology to current social science through increased public and governmental awareness.”