University Park, Pa. -- Divorced fathers help their children more by consistent payment of their child support than by the number of visits made to their children.
What is more critical for child well-being in households with nonresident fathers is whether the father pays child support, says Dr. Valarie King, assistant professor of sociology and human development and family studies at Penn State.
"Approximately one-half of all children will live in a single-parent family at some point in their childhood," King notes. "This, in turn, has redefined the relationship between parents and their offspring. The nonresident parent, usually the father, often becomes, by default, the less dominant parent.
"My data demonstrates that for nonresident fathers, the critical factor is the level of his child support, rather than the frequency of his visits," says King. "Besides direct help to the child, payment of child support may help indirectly by enhancing the mother's economic well-being and thus her emotional well-being. It may also have noneconomic effects such as improving mother-father or father-child relationships by reducing conflict between the divorced parents."
The level of child support is crucial in that it can significantly increase the resources available to the child. Additional money from child support may allow the child to make use of better educational activities and materials, receive better health care or live in a better neighborhood.
"Compared to mothers, fathers tend to have comparatively little involvement in the day-to-day care of their children, even in intact families," King says. "Therefore, infrequent contact between nonresident fathers and their children seems to be less damaging than many people think."
But the sociologist is not suggesting that the father should stop seeing them or make his visits few and perfunctory, King adds.
"Although little evidence exists that visitation by nonresident fathers helps child well-being, these fathers can be important in other ways," King notes. "Like all fathers, they can potentially offer material resources, instruction and training; serve as good role models; and provide emotional support. They can also indirectly affect their children by their influence over the mother and the mother's behavior toward the child."
If nonresident fathers stay involved, the parents may be able to better maintain consistent discipline and supervision over their children. Mothers may be relieved of some of their stress from taking sole responsibility.
"Visitation per se can potentially have harmful as well as beneficial effects," King says. "Indeed, if a father is violent or abusive, visitation may do more harm than good. Similarly, if the parents are continually fighting, the father's presence may increase family tensions which in turn do emotional harm to the child."
King is the author of "Variation in the Consequences of Nonresident Father Involvement for Children's Well-Being," published by the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
The data for this analysis comes from a National Longitudinal Survey of 6,283 women between 14 and 21 years old in 1979. As of 1988, a total of 3,822 women out of the original sample had borne 7,346 children. King's analysis focuses on the 2,220 children living in households with their mothers but with the father living elsewhere in 1988.
EDITORS: Dr. King can be reached at (814) 863-8716 (office).
Paul Blaum (814) 865-9481 (office) (814) 867-1126 (home) firstname.lastname@example.org
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