Background: Children who have externalizing (e.g., aggression) or internalizing (e.g., anxiety) behavior problems in early childhood will likely continue to have these problems at older ages (Fanti & Henrich, 2010), when these problems may become more harmful for their social and academic success. Children growing up in poverty are more likely to experience behavior problems (Zachrisson & Dearing, 2015). Thus, it is important to prevent behavior problems from developing in early childhood, especially among low-income children. Although parenting is implicated in the development of child behavior problems, fathers’ roles have been less studied than mothers’ roles. This study investigated whether fathers’ positive involvement with children (e.g., singing songs, reading, playing inside or outside) could protect them from persistent behavior problems and whether this protective effect is stronger or weaker for children living in poverty.
Authors: Jin-kyung Lee, Graduate Student, Department of Human Sciences, Ohio State University; Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan, Professor, Department of Human Sciences, Ohio State University
Original Citation: Lee, J., & Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J. (2017). Resident fathers’ positive engagement, family poverty, and change in child behavior problems. Family Relations, 66, 484-496. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12283
Sample: This study used data on 762 children from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national longitudinal study that oversampled children born to unmarried parents in large U.S. cities. We focused on children whose fathers lived with them consistently from birth through age nine, because these fathers had the opportunity for daily involvement. Of the children, 54% were boys. Of the fathers, 48% had a high school diploma or less education, 27% had some college or technical school, and 25% had at least a college degree. Thirty-six percent of fathers identified as non-Hispanic White, 31% as Black, 28% as Hispanic, and 5% as other race/ethnicity. The typical family in this sample had a household income at 200% of the federal poverty level. Children’s externalizing and internalizing behavior problems were measured via maternal report at ages five and nine. Fathers reported on their daily positive involvement with their children when children were five years old.
Results: As expected, children with greater externalizing and internalizing problems at age five continued to show higher levels of behavior problems at age nine, and children living in greater poverty also had higher levels of behavior problems at age nine. However, greater father positive involvement weakened the effect of family poverty on child behavior problems. In addition, for children living below the poverty level, greater father positive involvement further disrupted the persistence of internalizing behavior problems from early to middle childhood.
Discussion: This study suggests that greater daily positive involvement by resident fathers with their children (e.g., singing songs, reading, playing inside or outside) may protect children – especially those in low-income families – from developing persistent behavior problems such as aggression or anxiety. Fathers’ positive involvement may benefit children by building stronger father-child relationships and strengthening children’s abilities to control their emotions and behavior (Paquette, 2004). A greater emphasis on fathers’ positive involvement in prevention and intervention programs focused on children in low-income families may be valuable.
References: Fanti, K. A., & Henrich, C. C. (2010). Trajectories of pure and co-occurring internalizing and externalizing problems from age 2 to age 12: Findings from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care. Developmental Psychology, 46, 1159–1175. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020659
Paquette, D. (2004). Theorizing the father–child relationship: Mechanisms and developmental outcomes. Human Development, 47, 193–219. https://doi.org/10.1159/000078723
Zachrisson, H. D., & Dearing, E. (2015). Family income dynamics, early childhood education and care, and early child behavior problems in Norway. Child Development, 86, 425–440. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12306