Social Fathers and Child Well-being

In Research by Dads for Life Resource Team


The following is an abstract of Social Fathers and Child Wellbeing by Sharon Bzostek.
SourceBzostek, S. (2008). Social fathers and child wellbeing. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 950–961

tree11Research indicates that more than one third of all children in the U.S. are now born to unwed parents. Many of these children will experience their biological parents breaking up and forming new romantic partnerships early on in their lives.

Such children generally fare less well, compared to children living with two biological parents. However, it is important to note that this school of research has largely focused on older children and adolescents living in stepfamilies formed through divorce and remarriage.

In contrast, emerging studies on young children born to unwed mothers reveal that their mothers often re-partner with men who play an active role in their child’s life, and have more social and economic resources, thereby enhancing the child’s well-being. What remains unclear is whether involvement by these men, also known as social fathers, is as beneficial as involvement by a resident biological father.

This study compares father engagement and child well-being in biological father families, with that in social (non-biological) father families, assuming both groups of fathers live with their children (are resident fathers). It also explores whether the involvement of the child’s non-resident biological father influences the resident social father’s involvement and child well-being.


Data for this study is drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being longitudinal survey of approximately 5,000 newborns and their parents. The data is nationally representative of all births occurring in large U.S cities between 1998 and 2000.

Married biological fathers and cohabiting biological fathers are collapsed into one category, as are married social fathers and cohabiting social fathers, because no meaningful differences were found between cohabiting versus married status for both groups of fathers in the initial analysis.


Child well-being is measured through three behavioural outcomes:

1)  anxious or depressive behaviour

2)  aggressive or withdrawn behaviour;

3)  an overall measure of child health.

Father engagement is measured by the average of eight items measuring direct, positive engagement with the child. While both mothers and fathers were interviewed for the Fragile Families survey, the following analysis was based on mothers’ reports on how many days in a typical week the resident father:

1) reads stories to the child;

2) tells stories to the child;

3) sings songs and nursery rhymes with the child;

4) hugs the child;

5) tells the child he loves him or her;

6) tells the child that he appreciates something the child did;

7) plays imaginary games with the child;

8) plays indoors with toys such as blocks or Lego with the child.

Key Findings

Impact of resident social fathers’ involvement

The results indicate that when resident social fathers are more engaged, children have fewer behavioural problems and better overall health.

Comparing resident biological fathers and resident social fathers

In contrast with theoretical arguments that biological father involvement is better for children than social father involvement, it appears that that both types are equally beneficial for the well-being of young children, assuming both live with children.

Impact on child if both resident social father and non-resident biological father are involved

Many children living with social fathers also continue to have relationships with their non-resident biological fathers.  There has been concern that the involvement of both a resident social father and a non-resident biological father in the child’s life could lead to conflict within the family (e.g., between the two fathers or between either father and the child’s mother). Such conflict could reduce the benefits of resident social father involvement.

Alternatively, as this study reveals, involvement by both resident social and non-resident biological fathers could have independent benefits for child well-being, particularly if the relationship between the child’s biological parents is good.

The results suggest that frequent contact between a child and a non-resident biological father does not diminish the benefits of having an involved social father. Moreover, frequent contact with a non-resident biological father is also associated with greater child well-being and fewer problematic behaviours in the child.

What matters in the relationship between resident social father and child

Nevertheless, the promising relationship between resident social father involvement and child well-being might not apply across all scenarios.  An important determining factor in this question is the level of bonding and attachment between children and resident social fathers. Both the duration of the social father-child relationship and the child’s age when the relationship begins can affect bonding between a child and a social father.

Differences between older and younger children in relating to resident social fathers

These two factors may explain why adolescents living with social fathers fare less well.  Older children are also more able to fully appreciate the differences between a social and biological father, and may be less receptive to the entry of a new family member.

Furthermore, older children — especially adolescents who are in the process of establishing their own independence — 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.

Implications for Future Research

Future research based on later waves of the Fragile Families study will provide important additional information about how young children living with social fathers fare as they get older and about the well-being of children who begin living with social fathers at older ages.

Moreover, given that the study was conducted in a large urban area, continued contact with a non-resident biological father might be more feasible and common than in areas separated by larger distances. Urban communities might also hold expectations regarding social father families that are different from those of communities in different geographic settings. Such differences could translate into varying experiences for children living with social fathers.

Similarly, children born to married parents who later divorce and re-partner may react differently to living with a social father, than do children born to unwed parents. The relatively high prevalence of living with social fathers among children born to unwed parents might make living with such fathers a more accepted and normalised state.

Finally, social fathers entering into families in which the biological parents were unwed may feel more comfortable adopting a father-like role than social fathers entering families disrupted by divorce.

About the Authors:

Sharon Bzostek received her Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University in 2009. Her primary research interests are in the fields of family demography, childhood inequality, and health disparities. Her current research projects include an analysis of child health disparities resulting from instability in family structure and an investigation of differences in maternal and paternal reports of children’s health status.

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 23-05-2011.