How Do Fathers and Kin Work Together to Support Fathering

In Research by Engagement

Source: Madhavan, S. and K. Roy (2012). Securing fatherhood through kin work: A comparison of Black low-income fathers and families in South Africa and the United States. Journal of Family Issues, 33 (6), 801-822.


tree11Previous research has highlighted the role of kin in supporting fathering practices in communities experiencing social and economic difficulties. Such research suggests that the traditional definition of “responsible fatherhood” based on financial provision and co-residence with children may be less relevant for fathers from non-traditional or fragmented families who can still make meaningful contributions to their children’s lives.

This study examines the role of “kin work” – work that members of a family do to keep the (extended) family functioning in the long-term. Kin work broadly encompasses wage and nonwage work, the intergenerational care of children or dependents (such as by grandparents), and care by immediate, extended, and fictive (non-biological) kin.

The goal of this study was to answer the following question: How do fathers and kin work together to support fathering practices among vulnerable men?


The study focused on fathers in one rural community in South Africa and in two cities in the U.S., who fathered children between 1992 to 2005.


The findings suggest that the conventional masculine norms that prioritise co-residence with their children and providing for the family are not the only measures of responsible fathering.

Although fathers in the study belonged to a group typically stereotyped as uninvolved fathers who cannot financially support their children, the everyday lived experiences of these men in families suggest a more complex reality.

Firstly, fathers and families were able to find alternative ways to enable and value men’s contributions, beyond co-residence and provision. Secondly, men’s ability to meet these goals depended on their relationships and negotiations with their own kin and, in some cases, the child’s maternal kin. Furthermore, while the practice of kin work differs across contexts, the authors identified several common processes that emerged in the two communities they studied.

  1. Intergenerational linkages can be a source of support but also conflict. Many young men are not ready, emotionally or financially, to take on fathering responsibilities on their own, and are hence supported by their own kin (paternal kin) and the kin of the mother of their children (maternal kin). For example, young unmarried fathers are more likely to be living with their own parents who exercise substantial influence over the process of parenting, which inevitably leads to conflict. However, such intergenerational linkages, elder knowledge and guidance on parenting prove to be very useful in the long-term, helping to secure young men’s roles as fathers
  2. Negotiations between maternal and paternal kin is ongoing. Young fathers, young mothers, and both sets of kin negotiate everything from the everyday necessities of diapers, food, clothes, and medicine to intangibles, such as future obligations of children to kin. The success of these negotiations depends on several key factors: residential proximity of the various kin and the extent of trust in the other group’s ability to care for a child.
  3. A multi-pronged approach to parenting can help. Many families display multi-pronged approaches to caregiving, which expand the definition of the family to include those kin supporting the family.Child care responsibilities are distributed in a number of ways, including formal co-parenting agreements, intermittent support provision by fathers, regular visiting by fathers, and re-entry of fathers into their children’s lives as they grow up. This arrangement of caring for children is particularly supportive for low-income men who sometimes attempt to fulfil their responsibilities to multiple children from different relationships despite very limited economic resources and uncertain employment prospects.
  4. Male role models can play an important role. Children encounter various male role models. These could be their biological fathers but not necessarily co-resident with them or they could be non-biological fathers but co-resident with children. Additionally, some men are “social fathers” through non-intimate relationships as in the case of maternal uncles.

This concept of flexible fathering allows and encourages men to do their part as kin workers by stepping in for other men who cannot meet their paternal responsibilities due to job loss, incarceration, or death, and to rely on such assistance themselves if they ever need it.

Depending on the family composition and men’s biological status, residence, and kin support, men can assume a variety of fathering roles that strengthen their status within the kin group and contribute to the well-being of children.

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 23-04-2013.