How an Absent Father Affects Boys and Girls Differently

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of children living in mother-only households has risen from 8 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2010. Freakonomics has a long-standing interest in the role parents play in the lives of their children, and while we usually find no merit in helicopter parenting, a basic level of involvement is obviously important. Past research has shown that a father’s involvement with his children is linked to all kinds of beneficial outcomes, from higher academic achievement, improved social and emotional well-being, to lower incidences of delinquency, risk taking, and other problem behaviors.

A new working paper from authors Deborah A. Cobb-Clark and Erdal Tekin examines the relationship between juvenile delinquency and the role of a father in the household, particularly in terms of the different effects an absent father has on boys and girls. They discovered, among other things, that sons benefit far more from a father (or father-figure) than daughters do. From the abstract:

…we find that adolescent boys engage in more delinquent behavior if there is no father figure in their lives. However, adolescent girls’ behavior is largely independent of the presence (or absence) of their fathers.

Though a non-residential father isn’t ideal, a father-like replacement does have positive effects on boys. A stepfather tends to reduce delinquent behavior, and having a father figure who puts in a significant quantity of time around a child is important.

Adolescent boys who have a father figure in their lives are significantly less likely to engage in subsequent delinquent behavior than are their peers with no father in their lives.  For example, the incidence of any form of delinquent behavior is 7.6 percentage points lower among boys living with their biological fathers and is 8.5 percentage points lower among boys who live with stepfathers and have no relationship with their biological fathers.

While daughters generally require a level of quality interaction with a father figure, sons benefit from sheer quantity of time, and respond simply to having a father or father figure around the house. Most interestingly, however, is the finding that daughters appear to be adversely affected by contact with their non-residential biological father.

It is also important to note that growing up with only a non-residential, biological  father who spent time talking with his adolescent daughter appears to be associated with slight increases in her delinquent behavior as measured by any type of crime, violent crime, and selling drugs once she reaches adulthood. This surprising result may be due to the possibility that these verbal interactions between the non-residential father and the adolescent  is an indication of a problematic relationship between the two, which might have manifested itself as delinquent behavior later in life.

For both young men and women, delinquent behavior decreased if their mothers simply spent time “doing things” with them during their adolescence. Mothers also do significantly more “talking” with their daughters than with their sons, a potential contributor for why sons are more affected by the absence of a father than daughters are. However, the authors note that:

Mothers also do not appear to compensate for the complete absence of a father figure by increasing their involvement with their children. In fact, it is those children without a father figure in their lives who engage in fewer activities and talk about fewer issues with their mothers.

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  1. David says:

    “among boys living with their biological fathers ”

    Does this study control for boys living with their non-biologic, but adoptive fathers? As the father of an adopted son, I’m curious.

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    • Rob says:

      Hi David, I am currently working on my M.A. thesis on a related topic. There is a bit of a gap in the research in bio vs adopted. From the studies I have read, the data above don’t apply to adopted or step-parents that provide a supportive and loving home. There are still abandonment and grieving concerns that adopted children, or any children separated from bio parents, must work through. I highly highly recommend checking our Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. This provides a great deal of info about what adopted children and adoptive parents must work through. Netflix also has a great documentary called Absent.

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  2. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Scientific American I recall, disclosed a study that showed that a man was 400X more likely to kill his step-kids than his biological kids!

    Having step-kids, I understand that. The refrain, “You’re NOT my Father…” rings in my ears.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 14
  3. Skip Montanaro says:

    Does the study control for race, income, etc?

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4
  4. Matt says:

    “This surprising result may be due to the possibility that these verbal interactions between the non-residential father and the adolescent is an indication of a problematic relationship between the two, which might have manifested itself as delinquent behavior later in life”

    This article makes little sense, and does not show how the study was done, or how the participants were selected. It also assumes any contact a father has with his daughter must be negative. Really?

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  5. Todd says:

    Hmmm…when there is strong biological evidence, not just anecdotal suggestion, that the absence of fathers causes girls to begin menstruating at an earlier age, this study seems to miss some very important factors.

    http://www.sciencealert.com.au/news/20080409-17912-2.html

    Additionally, in the “softer” but no less real realm, behavorial psychologists with extensive clinical experience point out that the presence of fathers in a girl’s life show up dramatic differences in terms of not just self-esteem, but academic performance, choice of mates, etc.

    The latter questions may be about dogma and anecdote. The former is demonstrated scientifically. Thus, on balance, I am left thinking that this study missed some really important variables….

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  6. IE says:

    I’m wondering if the evolution programmed us to become “delinquent” if we are raised without fathers.
    If the father’s procreation strategy (e.g. rape, or just not sticking around) was successful, wouldn’t it be logical for the next generation to continue with the same approach? After all, there might be an environment when this approach would work better.
    And that may manifest itself as an asocial behavior, aggression, etc.

    Obviously, this doesn’t apply to girls.

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  7. Adam Acosta says:

    This article is linked to in the blog post and it describes in a fair amount of detail what is controlled for and how in addition to the basic methodology of analysis and selection. Granted, it helps to know some calculus and statistics to understand what the researchers are saying, but still, you can answer these questions by reading the paper.

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  8. Philip says:

    Re: the last sentence of paragraph (1). Risk-taking is a problem behavior? What about rock-and-roll, or integration and bus boycotts, going to the moon, or saving the world from fascisim by winning WWII. All these achievements were undertaken by a group of risk-takers (and I don’t mean only men.) A society which views risk-taking as a problem behavior will be doomed to stagnation. L. and D., I would love to see some pieces on the freakonomics of risk-taking. Cheers.

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