Social Fathers & Biological Fathers
The limited research on the role of “social fathers” – men who are not the child’s biological father but play some kind of paternal role – has found that their active involvement can benefit children, especially where biological fathers are absent.
For this reason, much of the research on “social fathering” focuses on whether it functions as a protective factor in vulnerable, single-parent families.
“Social Dads” – Compensatory Influences or Poor Substitutes?
A “social father” may be a male family member, such as a grandfather or uncle, who has a close relationship with the child, or a man married to or cohabitating with the child’s mother but who is not the biological father.
Theories of “social fathering” suggest that, as with biological fathers, “social fathers” contribute both directly and indirectly to children’s cognitive and emotional adjustment in the following manner.
“Social fathers” may contribute to children’s well-being through their own interactions with them, as well as to mothers’ mental health by providing support and assistance, thereby helping to improve mothers’ parenting behaviour and the quality of the home environment mothers provide for their children.
Research on the impact of “social fathers” on children, however, is mixed. Key findings related to are summarised below.
- Positive impact of male relatives on children’s socio-emotional outcomes – A study of low-income ethnic minority teenage boys found that the mother’s development of supportive relationships with male family members was linked to lower occurrence of behavioural problems and better adjustment in the boys.
- Positive impact of male relatives on children’s educational outcomes – A study of ethnic minority pre-school children in single-parent families found that the involvement of male relatives such as uncles or grandfathers was associated with higher levels of school readiness in children. These benefits appear to arise through a link with mothers’ parenting. “Social fathers” support the mother’s ability to provide her child with warm and cognitively stimulating care, by providing the mother and child with stimulating learning materials or by providing support in day-to-day activities that allow low-income single mothers to spend more quality time with their children.
- Negative impact of mother’s partner on children’s socio-emotional outcomes – When comparing the influence of different types of “social fathers”, it was found that where the father figure was the mother’s romantic partner, children had significantly lower levels of socio-emotional adjustment. Other research likewise shows that children living in families with a stepfather are often no better off than those living with single mothers, despite the potential for greater access to financial and parental resources.
Positive impact of mother’s married partner on children’s socio-emotional outcomes – A recent studycompared parenting practices of four groups of fathers according to whether they were biologically related to a child and whether they were married to the child’s mother, and found some surprising results: following children from birth to age five found that when mothers re-partner after an unwed birth, they often do so with men who play an active role in their child’s life.
- Married “social fathers” exhibited equivalent or higher quality parenting behaviours than married and cohabiting biological fathers.
- While married and cohabiting biological fathers displayed similar quality parenting, the parenting practices of married “social fathers” were better than those of cohabiting “social fathers”.
- Among the four groups of fathers, married “social fathers” were most engaged with children, took on more shared responsibility in parenting, and were more trusted by mothers to take care of the children.
- Positive impact of mother’s married partner on children’s academic performance – Stepfathers’ involvement in school is associated with a higher likelihood of students getting mostly A’s.
- Positive impact of mother’s resident partner on children’s behaviour and health – Another study of children aged one to three years born to unwed parents found that higher levels of engagement between children and mothers’ partners who live with them are linked to fewer behavioural problems (particularly aggressive behaviour) and better overall health in children.
Making Sense of the Research
The findings on the benefits of male relatives are not surprising: extended family ties are common sources of parenting and social support even for stable and/or intact families. On the other hand, mixed messages from the research on mothers’ romantic partners may be understood in terms of several factors:
- Stresses of “blended” family dynamics – Where mother’s romantic partners are linked to poorer outcomes for children, tense family dynamics may be responsible, arising when mothers have male partners who act like fathers or when mothers encourage their partners to act as father figures.
- Relationship between the mother and “social father” – Where resident stepfathers are found beneficial, the nature of the mother-stepfather relationship may be a contributing factor. Resident stepfathers may make considerable investments in non-biological children, as part of the “relationship effort” with regard to their mother, in the hope of future child bearing or other positive outcomes with her
- Age of the child – Much research on blended families is based on older children and adolescents living in stepfamilies formed through remarriage. Older children are more likely to recognise and resist the entry of a new authority figure into the household, making it more difficult to establish meaningful and positive “social father”-child relationships.
However, children who begin living with a “social father” at a relatively young age may not understand the difference between a “social” and biological father, and may therefore be more receptive to involvement by the former.
The research suggests that some “social fathers” parent well, and benefit children in the process. A priority may thus be to provide appropriate support to strengthen relationships between mothers and “social fathers” as well as “social fathers” and children, so that vulnerable and/or non-intact families that typically rely on a variety of childcare arrangements are able to draw on “social fathering” as a potential parenting resource.
1. Kalil, A. (2003). Family resilience and good child outcomes: A review of the literature. Te Manatu Whakahiato Ora: Centre for Social Research and Evaluation, Ministry of Social Development.
2. Florsheim, P., Tolan, P. H., & Gorman-Smith, D. (1996). Family processes and risk for externalizing behavior or problems among African-American and Hispanic boys. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1222-1230.
7. Nord, C., & West, J. (2001). Fathers’ and mothers’ involvement in their children’s schools by family typeand resident status [On-line]. Available: http://aspe.hhs.gov/search/fatherhood/htdocs/pdf/nces-2001032.pdf.
10. Anderson, Kaplan, & Lancaster,1999, as cited in Marsiglio, W., Amato, P., Day, R. D., & Lamb, M. E. (2000). Scholarship on fatherhood in the 1990s and beyond. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1173-1191
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 07-06-2011.