<>Listener: 26 January, 1980
Keywords: Social Policy;
What is your reaction when you see a truck with a couple of children in the cab next to the driver? Concern for their safety? Anger at their mother for working? Or does it please you that here are a couple of kids with the good fortune to spend a day with their dad at work?
A couple of centuries ago it was normal for children to be with both their working parents. There are some residual areas, such as on the farm, where this still happens. But for the majority of children their father’s (and mother’s) work is out of their range of experience, an effect compounded where the job has little to show physically for itself (it is easier to grasp what your Dad is doing on an assembly line, than if he works in an office).
Fragmentation of our lifestyles and social groups seems to be an inevitable consequence of modern technologies. But whatever the economic advantages, we do not always think sufficiently about the social effects. For instance, with many fathers working long hours away from home, perhaps using overtime or a second job to make up family incomes or travelling long distances to work, their traditional parenting roles are being limited. For some, all that is left is the fertilisation and financing roles. They remain the child’s biological father, they provide economic support for the family, but the activities of supervising, playing with and talking to their children are negligible.
There are some fathers who are fighting to maintain their proper role—perhaps at the cost of income and career. But for too many families the minimal fathering role is apparent.
Can we get away with such a minimal role? Urie Bronfenbrenner, professor of child development and family studies at Cornell University, while visiting us reported research which compared a group of children from two-parent families with a group of children from one-parent families who were similar on various biological, psychological and socio-economic variables. The research showed that they performed worse on a number of psychological and emotional tests.
This need not surprise us. Because of the lack of social support for one-parent families, including financial support in America, such families are in an inferior environment, and the children are bound to do worse.
The serendipitous research finding was that one group of children from solo parent homes did as well as the matched children from two-parent homes. What distinguished them from the others was that although the fathers did not live with them, they continued to take an active role in the family. As well as looking after the children, the fathers ran errands and babysat for the mother, supported her with discipline, and advised her. They may not have slept in the house but they continued much of their role as father and (even) as husband.
The implications of this research affect many aspects of social policy. For instance, it suggests that when a marriage breaks up, the more that the parents can continue to work together the better for the children. I leave the reader to speculate as to whether the present legislation for terminating marriage is likely to assist such an outcome.
For the marriage partnership, the implication of the research is that fathers have a vital role in the development of the children. If we are concerned about child development and the quality of our future, we must pursue a social policy of promoting good fathering.
Policies such as parental education and social attitudes lie outside the ambit of economics. But there are economic changes which could improve fathering. For instance, at the job level firms could make it easier, even encourage, children to visit their fathers so they know what he is doing.
At the economy level, we need to take pressures off the family so that the economic comfort of a family is not at the cost of the father’s absence.
Professor Bronfenbrenner goes a step further and argues for a shorter working day for fathers so they have more time with their children. This would involve some economic loss to the country, from reduced worker output. On the other hand, Bronfenbrenner also sees the increasing numbers of mothers in the workforce as a positive benefit, to the woman herself and in terms of extra output. The result could be two parents each working a six-hour day producing more output and giving more quality parenting than the father working a 10-hour day.
Such a strategy involves a different approach to working patterns than we have today: more flexibility in working hours, a greater variety of patterns, more (quality) childcare. The present levels of unemployment, plus the impending problems arising out of rapid technological change, provide us with the opportunity to improve fathering in New Zealand, once we are willing to accept that fathering is more than just semen and cents.