Policy makers have had the advantage of more than 70 years of fatherhood research to inform their legislative decisions. It is time to act on this accumulated wisdom.

Posted by Yuri Joakimidis, Thanks to Yuri and the Shared Parenting Information Group UK

Michael Lamb

Speaking at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Conference ‘Men and their Children’ in London, 30th April 1996



Historically fathers have been viewed or presented in a variety of different images to describe the script that they have been seen to be fulfilling. They have variously been presented as:

  • moral overseer
  • breadwinner
  • sex role model
  • nurturant/participant

Over time there have been major changes as to which of these gets the most attention, and in Britain we are currently undergoing a renewed wave of interest in the notion of the father as a nurturant participant – somebody who plays an active role in the day to day care and bringing up of children.

All of these images of fathers are alive today and they represent the different ways in which fathers have and continue to influence their children’s development. But an important point is that while there have been changes over time and cultures in the relative importance attributed to each of these roles or images, it’s a mistake to think that we will able to find the father or the father’s role. Rather we need to be looking for a more inclusive awareness of the diverse roles that fathers have played and continue to play, and the ways in which those may be very different in different parts of our society.

Research traditions

By my last count there was something of the order of 4,000 published studies or reports that deal with the effect that fathers might have on their children’s development, and clearly it would be impossible in this context to go through each of those studies and present their conclusions. Instead, what I want to try to do is to organise this literature in terms of what I see as four major research traditions which have guided the research, and I think that each tells us something about the ways in which fathers influence their children’s development.

The four major research traditions are:

  • father absence – divorce
  • correlational studies
  • increased involvement
  • attachment

These begin with the studies around 1940 and were especially prominent through the early 1950’s, which were concerned about what happens to children when their fathers are absent. Many fathers were of course absent in the 1940’s because they were in service. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the concern shifted not to those whose dads were up at the front, but to those whose dads were killed in action – what effect was that likely to have on their children’s development ? And over time the wave of research has come to be concerned increasingly with children whose parents have split or divorced.

At roughly the same time that studies had focused on father absence, there was another wave of studies that attempted to look at associations between characteristics of fathers, and characteristics of children in an attempt to see whether masculine men, or assertive men, or successful men had particular types of attributes to be found in their children.

Beginning in the 1970’s, two other waves of research became obvious, one of which focused on the ways in which children were influenced when their fathers were unusually involved in their development, and the other which focused on close observational analyses of what happens within families – how do children form relationships with their parents, and what effect does that have on them?

Now I want to go through briefly, each of these traditions and summarise what they each told us about the ways in which fathers influence children’s development.

Father absence

When the research on father absence began in the 1940’s, there was a tremendous concern that the absence of a father would have major effects on boy’s sexual adaption. So the primary focus of this research initially was on whether or not boys would be adequately masculine if they were raised without fathers. It took about ten years for people to realise that actually fathers were equally likely to have sons and daughters, and that they might want to consider the fact that father absence would influence girls as well. And so from around 1950 there was an increased interest in the effects on children of both genders.

The effects of father absence that we see in the United States, and I would guess in Britain, are highly controversial. I believe that there is now substantial evidence that father absence, on average does affect children’s development, and it does affect their development in a variety of domains.

The effects of father absence are:

  • psychological maladjustment
  • academic / school under-performance
  • antisocial behaviour
  • difficulty establishing and continuing intimate relationships

On average, children raised without fathers are more likely to show signs of psychological maladjustment; they are more likely to have difficulties at school, difficulty in getting even to underperform, or to drop out of school early, to have less school completed. They are more likely to be represented in the statistics on delinquency and unconventional social behaviour, and they seem to have difficulty establishing and maintaining intimate relationships, particularly heterosexual relationships once they move into adulthood.

The important question it seems to me is not, whether or not these factors are associated with father absence, but how we go about interpreting them. There has been an effort to interpret these in terms of the absence of the male sex role model, and indeed there are many… who would argue that the reason why boys show these deficits is because they lack access to a male sex role model. My reading of the literature is a little bit different. I actually see very little evidence that the absence of the male sex role is particularly important in these cases.

Father absence represents a number of things to a child:  

  • At least in the United States, and I believe to some extent in the United Kingdom, single parenthood is associated with tremendous economic disadvantage. In the United States, single mothers with children are the most disadvantaged segment of our society, and the economic consequences of father absence play a tremendous role in explaining why some of these disadvantages are seen on the part of children who are raised in single parent families.  


  • In addition single parenthood is associated with a substantial degree of emotional isolation, conflict between the two parents, particularly around situations of divorce. And there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that conflict between parents before, during and after separation, has a toxic effect on children’s adjustment. That characteristic too is an important factor to bear in mind, which helps us understand how father absence influences children. 


  • Children who grow up with only one parent are raised by a person who lacks somebody to back them up, to give them time away from parenting, to share both the burdens as well as the enjoyable aspects of being with and raising children. And that sense of being overwhelmed as a single parent, translates into difficulties in parenting which too have an effect on children’s development. 


  • The flip side of this is that children in these situations are deprived of another intimate caring relationship with somebody who is deeply interested in their own development and care. One developmental psychologist has argued that all of our collective knowledge about developmental psychology can be summarised in the notion that ‘what each child needs is somebody who passionately cares about them’. And I think that I would only change that to say that ‘children feel better when there are two people who passionately care about what happens to them’. And what helps to compound some of the effects of father absence is the fact that children are raised without one of those persons, and with another person who is dealing with a substantial degree of stress – emotional, psychological and economic, at the same time.

What’s important then in understanding the effects of father absence, is to recognise that when a father is not present in the home, it is not only the male sex role that’s absent, there are all the other aspects of the father’s role that are not being fulfilled in the same way. The breadwinning, the companionship, the support for the mother. We need again to recognise that fatherhood is not a uni-dimensional role, but one which has multiple facets, and that when fatherhood is not exercised in the family, the effect on the child can be damaging.

Correlational studies

The correlational studies took place in roughly the same era as the research focused on father absence, and so not surprisingly the initial concerns were very similar. The initial concern was “What happens to boys whose fathers aren’t masculine?” And so that set up a very simple type of facade where you could go and measure fathers’ masculinity, and measure boys masculinity, and assess the obvious relationship between those two. Unfortunately the obvious relationship was not found. In fact there was no relationship between the masculinity of fathers and the masculinity of sons, and after a short pause to recap, researchers realised that in their zeal to show how important masculine fathers were, they had lost sight of the fact that there needs to be some reason why a boy would want to be like his father anyway. And in fact, instead of looking only at the father’s masculinity, one might want to wonder about the relationship between them. So once the intervening relationship was introduced into the equation, researchers found that there was a relationship between masculinity of fathers and sons, though it was evident only when the relationship between the two of them was warm and close.

And as they continued research of this form they came to find that the important thing was actually the warmth or closeness of the relationship, not the masculinity at all. The closer, the warmer the relationship between fathers and their sons, the more likely were their sons to have the characteristics that the society valued. Interestingly if you look at this research over time, the studies of the 1950’s show that boys who were close to their fathers were masculine. As we look at the studies in the 1980’s we find that boys who are close to their fathers are more androgynous. That is to say it is the more socially desired role that seems to be associated with paternal warmth, not masculinity per se.

As the range of interests broadened – broadened not only to include daughters (we should certainly hear them described as the forgotten gender by developmental psychologists in the 1950’s and 60’s), but also to include a greater range of outcomes, we find an increasing number of studies showing that paternal warmth or closeness is associated with the same characteristics that are listed on the overhead. Children who have close warm relationships with their fathers are better adjusted psychologically, perform better at school, are less likely to be involved in antisocial behaviour, and seem to do better in their relationship with peers, as children, as adolescents, and as adults.

Now what’s important about this wave of research I think, is that it began by trying to focus on a unique aspect of fatherhood, and ended up coming to the conclusion that the same factors that made mothers important to children, also made fathers important to children. There seems much less stance that particular paternal characteristics were important, than they had expected.

Increased involvement

The third type of research focused on fathers who were unusually involved in their children’s lives. This was a wave of research that was initiated in the mid 1970’s by people like Graeme Russell, who followed families in which fathers were either primary care providers or shared care provision with their partners, and then in many cases examined what influence that had on children’s development. The first wave of studies came up with what were I think, for the authors of the studies, quite surprising findings that children raised primarily by their fathers seemed to be doing, if anything, better than children who were raised in traditional families. The reason for that is not I think, that fathers do it better than mothers do, but that the studies were studies of families which represent a very unique subset – they represented families in which mother and fathers were able to divide their responsibilities in ways that were in accordance with their individual values and goals. These were all studies of families in which men wanted to stay home, and had jobs which allowed them to organise themselves to flexibly in their … They were all families in which mothers did not want to stay home full time with their children. They may have wished to achieve the fulfilment that came from pursuing their professional agendas.

What these studies underscored for us as students of fathers’ influence I think was the tremendous importance of recognising that fathers are primarily part of family units because of broader socialising contexts and most of what is important for children’s development are factors that have to do with the family – with the social group as a whole. In these particular families, what was important was that they were, if you like, harmonious relationships between the parents and that narrow harmony of quality is what translated into benefits for children. In other words, what we see here is a realisation that instead of looking only at the individual characteristics of mothers and children, we need to look at the relationship they have with others, because it’s the quality of those relationships that also undergirds and protects children and provides the example.


The last series of studies focused on the establishment of attachments between fathers and infants. These studies show – something that at the time was considered to be remarkable – that infants, even in traditional families in which their mothers stayed home with their child, and dads were away at work, that even in those contexts, most babies formed attachment to both of their parents. What these studies have further shown is that those attachment relationships to both parents have a significant impact on children’s development, although not surprisingly, the relationship with the party who spends more time with the child tends to be more influential. Nevertheless, children who have positive and secure attachments to both of their parents seem to do better overall than children whose relationship with one parent is less secure. Likewise, children who have two insecure relationships are most disadvantaged. And what these studies underscore is that from the very earliest the attachment or relationship that he or she establishes are extremely significant and important. What they have also underscored is that the factors that make for secure attachment to mothers are the same as the factors that make for secure attachments to fathers.

Children form secure relationships with people who are sensitive, warm, caring, involved, regardless of the gender of that person. So if we take the results of these studies as a whole, what I think we find is a number of characteristics that are associated with better adjustment on the part of children.

Children benefit from:

  • parental warmth
  • parental involvement
  • family harmony
  • absence of economic stress
  • absence of family conflict

Children on average do better when their parents are warm and involved. You will notice that I use the word here ‘parental’ rather than ‘paternal’, because there really is no evidence that warmth is more or less influential as a characteristic of either parent. That is – the same characteristics of the individual are important, regardless of gender.

In addition these studies show that we need to look beyond the relationship that individual children have with individual parents, to look at the broader social concepts in which they grow up. Most children still grow up in a context where there are two adults, who may or may not be married to one another, who may or may not both be the biological parent. The quality of the relationships between those individuals has a crucial role to play in assuring the adjustment and development of those children. By the same token of course, family conflict is one of the most toxic factors, perhaps the most common correlate of children maladjusted. In the US context, it is also important to emphasise how important the absence of economic stress is – we don’t have a social security system that guarantees adequate economic support, and there is clear evidence that poverty and economic stress have adverse effects on children’s adjustment.

The diverse roles of fathers

To conclude then, if we go the question I was given as the title of my talk: “What are fathers for?” We find that fathers have lots of different roles and functions. I’ve listed them here in alphabetic order, rather than in any order of importance:

  • care provider
  • companion
  • economic provider
  • educator
  • lover
  • model
  • mother’s support
  • protector

The point I want to emphasise though, is not so much the specific roles, but the fact that there are a diverse number of roles fathers represent, and to emphasise that all of these are roles that can be, and are often, filled by mothers as well. And to emphasise, as I said at the beginning, that we can’t identify a single father’s role – one singular in terms of the characteristic of the father that makes him neither important, nor singular with respect to a culture as diverse as this one.

Different families in the UK are going to divide up their roles and responsibilities differently, and it’s most important I think as a society to ensure that the opportunities are there for parents to make those decisions in ways that best accommodate their own values, needs and goals, rather than to attempt to be prescriptive about what mothers should be doing – and I see that British mothers should be staying home with their babies. We don’t want to make the same mistake in telling fathers what they all should be doing. Children need relationships with their parents. What we should be doing is making it possible for parents to fulfil the roles that maximally influence their children’s development.

Michael Lamb speaking at the IPPR Conference ‘Men and their Children’ in London, 30th April 1996

Transcript by David Cannon – Shared Parenting Information Group