Growing Up in Scotland: father-child relationships and child socio-emotional wellbeing

Research report providing insight into the nature of father-child relationships in Scotland.

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Background

Parent-child relationships form a cornerstone of children's development (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998; Collins & Russell, 1991). Child development theorists originally focused on the central role of mother-child attachment, with father-child relationships viewed as secondary (Videon, 2005). Yet recent decades have produced a shift in societal attitudes and expectations surrounding the role of fathers (Gregory & Milner, 2011). Many fathers today expect to have an active and close emotional involvement in nurturing a child. In part, change has been fuelled by the marked rise in female employment, coupled with greater male job insecurity. This has reduced the extent to which families rely on fathers as the sole breadwinner, and has promoted shared responsibility for day-to-day care of the child. Nonetheless, the extent to which practices have caught up with societal expectations of more equal parenting is contested, and research suggests that fathers still generally work longer hours than mothers, are less likely to take up parental leave, and spend less time than mothers with their children (Devreux, 2007; Doucet, 2013; Hook & Wolfe, 2012; McMunn, Martin, Kelly & Sacker, 2015). Research has also suggested some differences in the types of interaction that fathers and mothers perform, with fathers specialising in play, especially physical play, and mothers in care-giving (Lamb, 2010). However, other work acknowledges the wide range of both parents' activities at home and suggests that, despite some differences in time spent on direct interaction and their focus, overall parents living together often have similar, closely overlapping roles in raising their child (Lamb, 2010; McMunn et al., 2015).

Even with greater equalisation of parental roles, there remain many questions about the particular contribution that fathers make to children's socio-emotional wellbeing, and the factors that may help or hinder the development of positive father-child relationships. As our society now contains a wide variety of family forms, such questions are pertinent in relation to all men who find themselves in a position of fathering a child, whether or not they are the biological fathers. Much research on children's socio-emotional development has overlooked fathers. A greater understanding of the role of fathers, and factors strengthening father-child relationships should contribute towards more effective representation for fathers in family policies and services, a declared aim of the Scottish Government's parenting strategy (Scottish Government, 2012).

Several aspects of fathering are likely to matter for children's development, and contribute to what makes a "good father" (Lamb, 2010) . Much early research on fathering used a theoretical conceptualisation of father involvement in terms of engagement (direct interaction with the child, for example, in play or routine care), accessibility (the father being available when needed), and responsibility (provision of resources) (Lamb, Pleck, Charnov & Levine, 1987). Engagement continues to be a focus of empirical research, which finds benefits of fathers' participation in play and care-giving activities for young children's socio-emotional development (Flouri, Midouhas & Narayanan, 2016; Kroll, Carson, Redshaw & Quigley, 2016; McMunn et al., 2015; Sarkadi, Kristiansson, Oberklaid & Bremberg, 2008). However, a recent revised conceptualisation of father involvement emphasises the need for fathers to show positive engagement (warmth and responsiveness, together with control), in addition to providing indirect care and monitoring of children (Pleck, 2010). This revision draws on more general parenting research, demonstrating benefits of parents adopting an authoritative parenting style that combines warmth/responsiveness and control (Baumrind, 1967; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Fathers' warmth/responsiveness, exercise of control and frequent direct involvement in play or routine care are all likely to be inter-related to some extent, especially among families with young children. Nonetheless, the revised conceptualisation of father involvement stresses the likely importance of the quality of parental interactions with the child, rather than the frequency or type of activities undertaken together. Warm, sensitive interactions between parent and child are key to the development of secure parent-child attachment in early childhood (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall, 1978), including secure father-child attachment (Brown, Mangelsdorf & Neff, 2012). As the child grows older, the need for parental proximity to maintain attachment becomes less important than parental availability, but parental warmth and sensitivity are still needed (Kerns, Brumariu & Seibert, 2011).

Middle childhood (roughly defined as from ages 6-12) is a comparatively understudied period of children's development, but the quality of parent-child attachment during this time is likely to be an important foundation for adolescent development of problems such as poor mental health and delinquency (Bosmans & Kerns, 2015). This study focuses on the quality of father-child relationships, using ten-year olds' perceptions of how often fathers are emotionally supportive (caring, receptive and responsive). It draws on information from families in the first birth cohort of the Growing Up in Scotland Study with two parents/carers resident in the household. Most of these were families containing both biological parents although a minority (10%) were families containing the child's mother and a male partner who was not the child's biological father.

To conclude this brief Introduction, we provide a description of the Growing Up in Scotland Study, and outline the main research questions.

1.2 Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS)

Growing Up in Scotland [3] ( GUS) is a longitudinal research study funded by the Scottish Government tracking the lives of thousands of children and their families in Scotland from the early years, through childhood and beyond. The main aim of the study is to provide new information to support policy-making in Scotland but it is also intended to provide a resource for practitioners, academics, the voluntary sector and parents. To date, GUS has collected information about three 'cohorts' of children: a child cohort and two birth cohorts - altogether, information has been collected on about 14,000 children.

This study uses data from the first GUS birth cohort, a nationally representative sample of families with children born between June 2004 and May 2005. Details of the sampling framework are provided elsewhere (Bradshaw, Tipping, Marryat & Corbett, 2007). Baseline data were gathered from 5,217 families during 2005-6, when children were 10 months old, and these families were followed up annually for five years (to age 6), and then at age 8 (sweep 7) and when in Primary 6/age 10 (sweep 8). The main carer (usually the child's mother) was interviewed at home at all sweeps. Partners were interviewed at home at sweep 2 (child aged 2), providing the main direct source of information from fathers (Bradshaw et al., 2008).

At ages 8 and 10, children in the study were invited to complete audio computer-assisted self-completion questionnaires. This report draws on information supplied by children at age 10 on the extent to which they had supportive relationships with each resident parent. All reported on their biological mother, and on either the biological father (most children) or a non-biological father figure living in the household. Child-reported information was confined to resident fathers.

Children's responses were used to categorise father-child relationships as poor, good or excellent according to levels of trust in, and communication with, fathers (emotional "supportiveness"). It is important to emphasise that the terms "poor", "good" or "excellent" relationships are used throughout the report as shorthand terms for "poor", "good" or "excellent" emotional supportiveness, as viewed by children. GUS did not collect information from fathers on supportiveness. In addition, although fathers' supportiveness is likely to be an important aspect of father-child relationships, fathers will relate to their child in other ways that are not considered here.

1.3 Research questions

This report addresses three main sets of research questions. These concern the distribution of poor, good or excellent father-child relationships, the predictors of poor father- child relationships, and the implications of father-child relationships for other aspects of children's socio-emotional wellbeing. Comparison with the mother also allows us to highlight unique aspects of father-child relationships. In examining predictors of poor father- child relationships, we explore whether there are particular factors that are important for father-child relationships, in addition to factors that may more generally support the child's relationship with either parent. We are also able to investigate whether fathers may make an independent contribution to children's socio-emotional wellbeing, after allowing for the mother-child relationship.

1.3.1 What is the distribution of poor, good and excellent father-child relationships?

We examine the distribution of poor, good and excellent relationships (levels of perceived supportiveness) for all children in the study sample, as well as separately for boys and girls.

We compare the quality of father-child relationships in families with a resident biological father with their quality in families with a non-biological resident father figure, in order to see whether non-biological father figures are felt by children to be just as supportive as biological fathers.

We look at how father-child and mother-child relationship quality are associated, in order to see whether children perceiving a supportive relationship with one parent usually feel supported by the other parent as well. We also compare the distributions of father-child and mother-child relationships in the GUS sample. This allows us to look at the totality of parental support for the child, and see where the child's relationship with one or both parents may need strengthening.

1.3.2 What predicts poor father-child relationships?

Two sections of the report explore which circumstances may lead to poor father-child relationships (low levels of perceived fathers' supportiveness). The first of these sections investigates the family's current circumstances (measured when children were aged 10 years), for all couple families including those with a non-biological residential father figure. The next section investigates earlier circumstances, for families with a resident biological father throughout the life of the GUS study. In both sections, we consider whether father-child relationships and mother-child relationships are subject to similar influences. This allows us to see whether there are particular factors that are important for father-child relationships, and whether there are other factors that may more generally support the child's relationship with both parents.

1.3.3 What are the implications of father-child relationships for other aspects of child wellbeing?

Here, we examine the extent to which the quality of father-child relationships (as defined by children's perceptions of supportiveness) goes hand-in-hand with other aspects of children's socio-emotional wellbeing.

We investigate associations with measures of overall child wellbeing (parental reports of behavioural and emotional difficulties, and the child's own reports of life satisfaction), and with parent- and child-reported measures of wellbeing in important specific domains (school and peer group). In this section, we also compare the effects of father-child and mother- child relationships.


Email: Wendy van der Neut

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