Fathers are Critical to Child Well-Being

Fathers are Critical to Child Well-Being

Fathers are Critical to Child Well-Being

Empirical studies have consistently shown that children suffer emotionally, academically, and developmentally when they don’t have a close relationship with their father post-divorce during childhood. Math, reading, social skills and emotionality are affected based on the post-divorce relationship children have with their father.

Girls who do not feel close to their fathers have demonstrated lower self-esteem and are at greater risk of depression over those who remain close to their fathers.[1]

Boys suffer in the areas of self-control, sleep, and motivation when they remain with their mothers post-divorce, yet boys who live with their father post-divorce prove to be more mature and independent and even warmer in their relationships.[2] Therefore, the systemic disenfranchisement of fathers is not only unfair to fathers, but it is detrimental to children.

The relationship between father and child must be of a quality that allows the child and father to develop a good relationship. A poor-quality relationship with a child does not have the same impact that a good relationship has.[3] This suggests that courts are critical to lowering the barrier for fathers to have such a relationship with their children, as opposed to becoming an obstacle.

Healy, Malley and Steward (1990) and Kurdek (1986) found that more frequent visitation was actually associated with fewer adjustment problems when parent conflict was high. Additionally, Fabricius and Luecken (2007) found that the long-term effects of parent conflict and parenting time on young adults’ health outcomes were mediated by young adults’ relationship with fathers and their ongoing distress surrounding their parents’ divorces. They also found that more parenting time was beneficial to father-child relationships in both high- and low-conflict families and served to counteract the negative effects associated with parent conflict.[4]

The father-daughter relationship has been studied at length and the outcome suggests a particularly important relationship for long-term well-being. “Numerous studies have shown that women who report having a close relationship with their father during childhood developed a strong sense of personal identity and positive self-esteem, as well as enjoying greater confidence in their adult relationships with men.”[5]

In her book Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters and the Pursuit of Thinness, Dr. Margo Maine, Ph.D., opines that “The time has come to focus on the positive and crucial role that fathers can play in their daughters’ emerging identity and self-esteem.” She goes on to write that, “Numerous studies have shown that women who report having a close relationship with their father during childhood developed a strong sense of personal identity and positive self-esteem, as well as enjoying greater confidence in their adult relationships with men.”[6]


It is established that children with fathers who are involved in their lives have higher cognitive and developmental functioning, greater empathy, stronger internal locus of control.[7] These “father positive” children are also more successful academically, athletically, and socially.[8] “A number of studies suggest that fathers who are involved, nurturing, and playful with their infants have children with higher IQs, as well as better linguistic and cognitive capacities.”[9] The same study concluded that “children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and as they grow older, have better social connections with peers.” Id. Study after study has established that fathers are critical to the well-being of children and the relationship is important from the first day the child is born.

Fabricius, Braver, Diaz and Velez cited to other academic literature in their article supporting the increased father-child relationship. They cite to Cashmore, Parkinson, and Taylor (2008) who found that overnight stays were associated with better quality father-adolescent relationships than daytime-only contact. Id. They also cite to Kelly and Lamb (Kelly, 2007; Lamb, 2004) in stating that they agree with most current writers that the weight of the evidence argues that the current minimum alternating weekend visitation is, in the typical case, too little for fathers and children. Id.

Fabricius, Braver, Diaz and Velez state, “In the statement that summarized the consensus of 18 expert researchers, Lamb, Sternberg, and Thompson (1997) wrote that:

‘To maintain high-quality relationships with their children, parents need to have sufficiently extensive and regular interaction with them. Tim distribution arrangements that ensure the involvement of both parents in important aspects of their children’s everyday lives and routines – including bedtime and waking rituals, transitions to and from school, extracurricular and recreational activities – are likely to keep nonresidential parents playing psychologically important and central roles in the lives of their children.'”

“An emerging consensus is developing (Lamb, 2004; Braver & O’Connell, 1998) that a minimum of one-third time is necessary to achieve these criteria and that additional benefits continue to accrue up to and including equal (50-50) time.”[10] Furthermore, Fabricius, et al state that joint time in high-conflict cases is not harmful to the kids, stating, “Buchanan et al. (1996) and Fabricius and Luecken (2007) found that more parenting time was not harmful in high-conflict families, and Johnston et al. (1989) found that duel residence was not harmful in families referred to court services for custody disputes.”

As Kelly and Lamb have argued, the ideal schedule is one in which children have opportunities to interact frequently with both parents in a variety of functional contexts (e.g., feeding, playing, disciplining, basic care, limit-setting, putting to bed, etc.).[11]

In both divorce and nonmarital relationships, children do better when they can maintain high-quality relationships with both parents. Children of involved fathers experience higher levels of academic achievement, fewer behavioral problems, better peer relationships, and increased social-emotional competence. Conversely, they are less apt to experience the negative outcomes associated with living in a single-parent household: poverty, emotional and behavioral problems, becoming teenage parents, and having poverty-level incomes as adults.

In 20 states and the District of Columbia, the most commonly awarded custody and visitation schedules given to a noncustodial parent was an equal timesharing award of 50%. On the other hand, in 30 states, the default presumption of shared placement was below 50%. The three states with the lowest default presumption of shared placement in 2018 were Tennessee (21.8%), Oklahoma (22.4%), and Mississippi (23.0%).

The CDC, working through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published a findings relating to effective parenting practices. They identified a number of parenting practices associated with positive child outcomes in the areas of physical health and safety, emotion and behavioral competence, social competence, and cognition. They are:

  1. Contingent responsiveness – returning a smile, engaging where the child is focused.
  2. Showing warmth and sensitivity
  3. Routines and reduced household chaos
  4. Shared book reading and talking to the children
  5. Practices that promote good health and nutrition, safety, prenatal care, breastfeeding, adequate nutrition.
  6. Use of appropriate (less harsh) discipline.

These parenting practices require time and opportunity, both of which are only available in custody arrangements which provide both parents significant time with their children. It is critical for the well-being of children for courts, attorneys, and child welfare professionals to recognize the importance of both parents in the lives of their children and craft parenting time plans that acknowledge and facilitate that fact. The Smith Firm attorneys diligently advocate for the parental rights of both parents because we truly do believe that “both parents matter.”

For more information regarding this topic please see attorney Chris Smith’s presentation for Families Divided TV.

Click here to schedule a consultation with The Smith Firm.

[1] U. Palosaari, H. Aro, and P. Laippala, “Parental Divorce and Depression in Young Adulthood: adolescents’ Closeness to Parents and Self-Esteem as a Mediating Factor,” Acta Psychiatry Stand 93 (1): 20-26 (January 1996).

[2] Richard Warshak and John Santrock, “The Impact of Divorce in Father-Custody and Mother-Custody Homes: The Child’s Perspective,” in New Direction for Child Development: Vol. 19. Children and Divorce, ed. L.A. Kurdek (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1983), pp. 19-46.

[3] See B. Wilcox. The Distinct, Positive Impact of a Good Dad, The Atlantic, June 14, 2013.

[4] Custody and Parenting Time. Links to family relationships and well-being after divorce. William V. Fabricius, Sanford L. Braver, Priscila Diaz, and Cloria E. Velez from The Role of the Father in Child Development, Edited by Michael E. Lamb, Fifth Edition, 2010.

[5] M. Maine. (2004). Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters and the Pursuit of Thinness, Second Edition. Nashville: Gurze Books. See also M. Piper (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Ballantine Books.

[6] M. Maine. (2004). Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters and the Pursuit of Thinness, Second Edition. Nashville: Gurze Books.

[7] M.E. Lamb (1997). Fathers and Child Development. In M.E. Lamb (Ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

[8] H.B. Biller, J.L. Kimpton (1997). The Father and the School-Aged Child. M.E. Lamb (Ed.).

[9] Fathers and Their Impact on Children’s Well-Being. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006.

[10] Fabricius, et al.

[11] Joan B. Kelly & Michael E. Lamb, Using Child Development Research to Make Appropriate Custody and Access Decisions for Young Children, 38 Fam. & Conciliation Cts. Rev. 297, 303-9 (2000) [hereinafter Kelly & Lamb (2000)].