Do Fathers Matter Around the Globe?

01.15.2013, 11:39 PM

It depends. The newest report from Child Trends finds that children from two-parent homes are more likely to flourish in the educational arena in the developing world, especially the West. No surprise there. As my Foreign Policy article notes:

Children from single-parent families in Australia are 55 percent more likely to have ever repeated a grade, compared to their peers in two-parent families, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences. Similar patterns obtain for children of single parents in Chile (69 percent more likely), Israel (194 percent), Spain (63 percent), Sweden (78 percent), Turkey (95 percent) and the United States (54 percent).

So, in the developed world (yes, even in Sweden!), it looks like it helps to have an on-site father around who can help with the homework, shuttling the kids to extracurricular activities, and devoting a fair share of his paycheck to his kids’ schooling.

But, to my surprise, the two-parent family does not seem to give children an educational leg up, compared to children from single-parent families, in much of the developing world, especially Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The World Family Map (which I helped to edit) suggests three reasons, among others, that the two-parent family may not provide children with an educational advantage in the developing world:

  • The extended family in many developing countries can pick up the slack left by an absent parent, usually an absent or deceased father;
  • School effects in the developing world may drown out family effects in the developing world; and,
  • Fathers may not devote as much practical and financial attention to educating their children in some developing countries.

Indeed, economist Cynthia Lloyd’s work indicates that mother-headed homes in Sub-Saharan Africa are often more likely to devote a significant share of the family income to kids’ schooling than are homes in the region with two parents. The reason? Dads in some Sub-Saharan countries focus more on their own pursuits and pleasures than on the education of their children.

So, when it comes to education, fathers seem to matter most in countries where fathers are expected to put their children’s needs over their own desires–that is, if they are in the home.


33 Responses to “Do Fathers Matter Around the Globe?”

  1. mythago says:

    So the takeaway is, the developed world would do better to shift from the nuclear-family ideal to an extended-family ideal, since that would better mitigate the effects when a father is absent, deceased, laid-off, disabled, etc. Of course, that would tend to move away from the social-conservative model favored by many here, in which a family is thought inevitably doomed if is not headed by a man, but that does seem to be what the data show.

  2. Maggie Gallagher says:

    I wonder: Could polygamy be a possible explanation for some of this cultural variation?

    Polygamy –even as a possibility–creates a contest in resources between the father and the existing children.

  3. ki sarita says:

    mythago, the reason the extended family is not feasible is the same reason marriage is becoming less and less feasible- economics.
    Extended families grew when its members are economically interdependent. they all live in the same house, own the same farm or business which they all work at.

  4. ki sarita says:

    Maggie can you explain what you mean by a contest in resources?

    Although I don’t see how this is relevant to this blurb- it doesn’t mention polygamy.

  5. ki sarita says:

    although some people have suggested that as the economy goes down, families may draw closer together to pool resources.

  6. Kevin says:

    Another great reason to outlaw divorce when there are minor children at home, or at least force divorced couples to live together if they have created children who are still minors, and living in a parent’s home.

  7. Diane M says:

    “So, in the developed world (yes, even in Sweden!), it looks like it helps to have an on-site father around who can help with the homework, shuttling the kids to extracurricular activities, and devoting a fair share of his paycheck to his kids’ schooling.”

    W. Bradford Wilcox, I think you’re missing an important factor here. Moms with a husband or co-parent in the home can devote less time to earning money. They can spend more time at home with small children or work part-time when their children are in school or just take a less demanding travel-intensive job. It is probably easier for them to breastfeed.

    “Mother-work” means that the kids are more likely to get high quality care in the early years. For school-age children it can be a way to get help with homework right after school. It may make it more likely that you have sit-down meals cooked at home.

    The work could also be done by the father, of course, the key is having two parents so that one can put less time into wage-earning.

    I don’t want to run down the importance of fathers being actively involved in their children’s lives. I just don’t want to forget mothers. One of the big advantages of a second parent is what it helps the first parent to do.

  8. Diane M says:

    So I want to add a few other possible explanations for why having two parents matters less in the developing world.

    1. Moms in the developing world have to work hard either bringing in more money or just doing domestic chores without water, etc. So perhaps having two parents doesn’t lead to putting a lot more time into educating the children.

    2. Perhaps having one parent is less common in the developing world. Perhaps the families that have divorced are families where staying together really would have been worse. And perhaps there are some families staying together that include bad fathers.

    3. Perhaps women in the developing world are less educated. In that case, it wouldn’t help as much if they had additional time to help their children after school.

    4. Education in the developing world relies less on parents.

    However, I am fundamentally surprised by this result. Having more money is pretty important to getting an education in the developing world and two parents would generally help. Even if the father is less likely to invest in his children’s education, it seems like the mother wouldn’t have a lot of money on her own.

  9. Diane M says:

    Another big issue –

    The developing world is not all the same. You’re looking at huge continents with multiple cultures on them. I don’t think you can understand what is going on without splitting the results a bit more.

    Things that might matter include how high is the rate of single-parent families? Who gets educated – just the children of the elite? only boys? How do you pay for education? What kind of single-parent families are we talking about and how does that compare to the developed world? How much control do women have of their own earnings or the family budget? Are there multiple wives?

  10. Diane M says:

    So my Favorite Smart Guy suggests that you look at the issue of remittances. In many developing countries one parent will actually leave the home and go off to earn money. (This may just as easily be a mother going to do domestic work.)

    So how are you counting two-parent families? Because a still-married couple might include one parent who is not physically present much of the time.

    Which gets at the importance of looking at the particular country and culture.

    A related question might be how do immigrant workers affect your data? Are any of the children you’re looking at immigrants? Or on the other hand, does immigrant domestic labor have any effect on the children in the country you’re looking at?

  11. Billy says:

    I am always amused that conservative bloggers here, especially Mr. Wilcox, takes every opportunity to sneer at Sweden. Inasmuch as the Scandinavian countries lead the United States in almost every index of success–educational achievement, health care, economic security, child support, etc.–, it seems weird that they are reflexively dissed here. It is as though their very success–achieved through policies that conservatives hate–causes conservatives to hate them.

  12. Diane M says:

    I’m not sure how it would effect this study, but I think it’s important to look separately at data for girls’ and boys’ education. In America, I think moms often play a bigger supportive role in boys’ educational achievement; girls generally don’t seem to need as much attention to make sure that they just do the assignments and turn them in.

    And I really need to get to work, but I do remember reading in Woman of Egypt a number of years ago that the children of divorce in Egypt at least were at risk for a number of problems.

  13. Diane M says:

    @mythago and ki sarita – I think what has most hurt the extended family in America is having to move for education and work. The other factor is that we generally prefer to be independent if we can afford it.

    However, if we were able to live closer together, it would probably strengthen the nuclear family, help single parents, make it easier for families to balance work and children, and help us meet the coming crisis of aging elders.

    @ki sarita – I am assuming Maggie Gallagher brought up polygamy because it exists in the countries where the WBW said having a father didn’t help the kids in school. The hypothesis makes perfect sense to me. A father with two wives and two sets of children would be dividing his money and time between all of his children. It would be similar to children in the US whose parents divorce and remarry – the children get a lower percentage of the parents’ income for their college expenses than for children whose parents stayed together.

    @Billy – I think the point about Sweden is that even with all the best possible social supports, it still helps to have two parents stay together.

    Of course, you might want to argue that one reason they are staying together is the social supports. While correlation is not causation, welfare reform in the US was accompanied by an increase in divorce and children born outside of marriage in the middle class. So I think we have to stop blaming food stamps for the problem here.

  14. La Lubu says:

    Diane M., where are you getting the idea that mothers prioritize boys’ education in the US, or that girls need less educational support? (I’ve never heard that before, and while support for girls getting high grades and going on to college has much more support now than it did when I was a kid, it’s still a struggle for girls who prefer STEM fields and who mostly deal with male teachers and classmates. They get a lot of cultural messaging about how they don’t belong and are biologically incapable of doing the work).

  15. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – I don’t think that American mothers put boys education over girls – anyhow I certainly hope not.

    I do think that girls are more likely to be organized and take responsibility for their homework. They are more likely to follow the rules and please the teacher. They are less likely to stare off into space, even when they are bored.

    Boys in American definitely do worse in school if you look at grades.

    I haven’t ever seen studies or data on how much help moms give to their sons versus their daughters. I’m going by what moms and teachers say about kids – boys are much more likely to be the ones messing up basic stuff like do your homework, turn in your homework, and put your damn name on your homework. There are girls who have the same issue and there are boys who don’t, but if you compare girls and boys as groups, this is what you may see.

    I think this is a huge reason for the gender gap in educational achievement. I think this might also be more of a problem for single-parent families because there is less time to supervise kids.

    Getting back to two-parent versus one-parent families, boys are more likely to be immature at the time of kindergarten. A two-parent family is more likely to be able to afford to hold them back a year and therefore they would be less likely to need to repeat a grade.

    Another way of looking at this might be that for girls, having two parents might not matter as much for educational achievement.

  16. marilyn says:

    It may be splitting hairs but it is important to me. Everyone has two parents. I can’t tell if this article is about the importance of a child being reared by a two headed household or if it is about the importance of the child’s actual parents being the people in the household raising them. Yes it is totally easier to have two people sharing the jobs around the house kids do better but it does not have to be the other parent, so long as the other parent is still doing their fair share from where they live and hopefully the child spends time there as well.

    Kevin. Your kidding right?

  17. Maggie Gallagher says:

    Ki Sarita:

    What does monogamy do? Many things but one of the things it does for men is to say “this woman, this home, these children” are your primary concern.

    The unity of sex, marriage and children contained in monogamy influences the ideal of what it means to be a father and what it means to be married.

    Polygamy means by contrast that a man holds open the idea his resources need to be used to attract a second mate.

    Even if he doesn’t it affects how he thinks of himself as a husband and a father.

    I suspect. The question on the table.

  18. Maggie Gallagher says:

    In support of this view, an anecdotes in the WEIRD context:

    A traditionalist man I once knew was willing to commit adultery. But he was extremely reluctant to commit any resources to his adultery. Buying a hotel room struck him as at least as great an infidelity to his role as husband as having sex.

    If he could have the sex without committing the resources–his guilt was reduced.

    Not justifying, just reporting Men are weird.

  19. La Lubu says:

    so long as the other parent is still doing their fair share from where they live and hopefully the child spends time there as well.

    “One-parent family” means that the other parent is not doing their fair share (or any share, as the case may be). If only one parent is doing the work of parenting, “one-parent family” is the correct terminology.

  20. La Lubu says:

    Buying a hotel room struck him as at least as great an infidelity to his role as husband as having sex.

    Oh g’wan. Dude was just cheap.

  21. Kevin says:

    “If he could have the sex without committing the resources–his guilt was reduced” and ‘Not justifying, just reporting Men are weird.’

    Except that he probably wasn’t committing adultery by himself. Was there, by chance, a woman involved? Was she also married? Or single, and just willing to destroy another woman’s marriage? What resources was she willing to use to break up the marriage?

    You know what’s weird? Women who have affairs with married men. And are just certain he’ll leave his wife for them.

  22. marilyn says:

    really? I’d say the kids father was missing or estranged or a deadbeat. I’d never imply that the child had only one parent – that would be as if to say that only one person has a responsibility. Just because they are not doing their share of work does not mean they are not suppose to.

    Like if they fail long enough at something then it simply erases the obligation. Parenthood is an optional state of being for people who take a fancy to it, nobody owes their offspring anything unless they feel like it.

  23. marilyn says:

    There are times when other people take it upon themselves to clean up after us, on the premise that if they don’t do it for us it won’t get done at all. Well it’s not like those people are cleaning up THEIR mess, they are cleaning up OUR mess. It was never their responsibility to pick up after us and if they do it will always be us neglecting our obligations, not them performing theirs.

    There is some dignity in saying that a kid really does deserve the active participation from both parents and that one parent failed them. Kids are not property to covet or gain nor are they property to gift, sell or dispose of. I don’t think its right to suggest that they are no longer parents when they fail it erases their debt and rewards their bad behavior. We could take away their authority without erasing their other obligations or the child’s rights to be recognized as their child and a member of their family.

  24. marilyn says:

    Maggie I hope you reply as I am very interested to hear your opinion. Actually my goal is to sway your opinion with reason but I’ll settle for just hearing your opinion if your willing. You said:

    “What does monogamy do? Many things but one of the things it does for men is to say “this woman, this home, these children” are your primary concern.

    The unity of sex, marriage and children contained in monogamy influences the ideal of what it means to be a father and what it means to be married.

    Polygamy means by contrast that a man holds open the idea his resources need to be used to attract a second mate.”

    This view that men cannot should not act as fathers to the children that they create with more than one woman is a real big problem Maggie. It is a big problem for donor offspring and for adopted people and for children who wind up with their parent’s partner’s named on their birth records for whatever reason. Maggie this line of thinking about marriage must stop because it is what is driving people to be gamete donors and what is driving people to mate with them. The premise for the donor is that even though they will end up with offspring on this planet they don’t need to take care of them because they are not married to the person that they reproduced with therefore their own offspring are not to be considered their children so society says not only is it OK to neglect and abandon them but the law will shield their identities so that they can make and abandon lots of their offspring to serve as children for nice married couples who want them, and then society says those married people are the child’s parents. This is what is driving an industry to look at donor offspring as less than human and less than deserving of basic human rights and freedom. This idea that children of marriages are human and deserving of care while others are only half human and can therefore be bought and sold freely without guilt is the problem. When one of those married people is also their biological parent they send the message that they will love and take care of their child only if they can pretend that it is a child conceived with the person they love their spouse. We have a whole society that believes parents should have no responsibility for children they create with partners who are not their spouses. “This woman, this home, this child” only because they are married to them? Really?

    We need to get rid of this idea that children are only conceived by nice married people and that we shun and discard children born of affairs or children born of gamete donation or children born of one night stands or born of a relationship we no longer enjoy. Permanent unending connection between parent and child outlasts the strongest of marriages that last only until death do they part. Let’s act like it is as real and permanent as it truly is and not give preferentail treatment to children born withing a marriage.

  25. marilyn says:

    If my falandering husband got some chick pregnant and she kept their baby I’d be totally upset but I would never on my worst day even in the heat of furious anger suggest that her child with him deserved less of his resources than my child with him. I might divorce him I might stay with him but that is all my stupid issue to deal with. He’d better treat that child like he or she is just as good as my child.

    Any jilted spouse that would suggest their step child deserved less than their child with their spouse is a jack ass its not the child’s fault. All this romance and social arranging is a construct it means nothing to the bare bones of the matter all our offspring are equally our responsibility one is not more important than the others because they were born to our spouse.

    That would be my kid’s brother or sister for life for eternity I would not make that relationship difficult for them,

  26. ki sarita says:

    Maggie, “Men” are not “wierd”; who elected your traditionalist friend to elect the entire male gender? My dad was sure never like that.

  27. Mont D. Law says:

    All patriarchal societies privilege men over women and children, whether polygamy is practiced or not. Until the women are emancipated this doesn’t change. Which is why in the poorest nations a male parent is not a benefit. Men can consume or provide resources as they choose. Rights and support for women produces the best results for woman and children. This is clear even among developed nations, where results for children vary depending on the degree to which social and legal emancipation have kept pace. It’s why outcomes for children are better in Sweden than in Italy.

  28. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law “All patriarchal societies privilege men over women and children, whether polygamy is practiced or not.”

    A patriarchy where polygamy is allowed is worse for women and children in certain ways. There aren’t enough women to go around, so girls tend to be married off before they are old enough to have an education. They become even more of an item to trade. Once in the marriage, they have to compete with the other wives instead of having the influence themselves.

    Also, it is often patriarchy itself that makes polygamy possible. A guy who is the boss of the family can choose to have a second or third or fourth wife. It’s not something most women will go along with given a choice and a chance to earn their own living. Societies where women have more power are more likely to push monogamy for men as well as for women.

    In any case, in the countries the report is looking at, polygamy is not the kind of world polyamorists envision. It is quite patriarchal and the women and children probably do lose resources because of it. However, in terms of the research study, you may want to consider that the men with multiple wives are probably also the richer men in the society, so there is more to divide up.

  29. Diane M says:

    The discussion has gotten pretty far afield from the question of why children of single parents do as well or sometime better than children with two parents in developing countries.

    I think this is actually a misleading result. From what I can tell, the data in the study is based on censuses. It is not about whether or not the parents are married, divorced, etc. It only looks at how many parents live with the children.

    Marilyn, I don’t think it’s a philosophical issue. I think they had data on who lives in the house and nothing else because it was a census, so that was what they used.

    So in this study a single parent means a parent living with the child while the other parent lives somewhere else. It does not mean that the couple is divorced.

    One of the studies mentions something that is left out of this blog:

    In developing countries, one parent often leaves the home to earn money. They then send the money back home for their children.

    I think that is the key here.

    Maybe these aren’t single parent families. Maybe the reason living with one parent helps a child is that they have more money than if the parent stayed home to care for them.

    This is a huge difference between our culture and others around the world.

    Another big difference between richer societies and poorer ones is that we get free public education. In many parts of the world, public education isn’t free. On top of that, it costs money to keep your child out of the labor force.

    So in some countries having money to send your child to school in the first place may be more important than spending time helping your child do their homework. And on top of that, the parents may not know how to help their children do homework.

    I think this whole subject shows the difficulty of trying to come up with a broad principle to apply to all societies. You need to consider particularities of each society.

    I would like to respectfully suggest that WBW and his co-author go back and consider this possibility and be careful about making broad claims about single parents and education in the developing world.

    Unless there is more data that I don’t know about, I do not think that this study proves that single parent families in the developing world are as good or better for a child’s education as two parent families. There is too much possibility that the families being discussed are not what we really mean by single-parent families.

    It might, however, suggest that when you are poor, having more money from your two parents trumps how much time your two parents spend with you.

  30. Maggie Gallagher says:

    Marilyn, you are mistaking analysis for moral opinion.

    I think men “should be” responsible for all their children. But practically speaking having children with multiple women makes this much, much harder, and much less likely.

    As for polygamy versus monogamy that is a discussion about marrriage systems and which create stronger forms of fatherhood.

  31. Mont D. Law says:

    (A patriarchy where polygamy is allowed is worse for women and children in certain ways.)

    Then you would expect to see worse outcomes for children in patriarchal cultures that practice pologamy then cultures that are just patriarchal. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

    (There aren’t enough women to go around, so girls tend to be married off before they are old enough to have an education. They become even more of an item to trade.)

    Except the two countries where this problem is most manifest are patriarchal and non-polygamous. China and India.

  32. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – polygamy was legal for Hindus in India until 1955. It is still legal for Muslims living there. However, it seems that in practice, more non-Muslims have multiple wives than Muslims.

    I’m not sure what outcomes for women and children you are referring to.

    “Then you would expect to see worse outcomes for children in patriarchal cultures that practice pologamy then cultures that are just patriarchal. That doesn’t appear to be the case.”

    A study to compare different cultures would have to be done very carefully since so many variables would be different, including the wealth of the country. Your best bet would be to find two groups in fairly similar cultures.

    Most cultures are patriarchal, although the extent of that varies, too, so that would make the study very difficult to do.

    If you are referring to outcomes for women and children in general, is there any reason to say that India and China are worse places than other developing countries?

    But if you are talking about the countries that found that living with only one parent did not change your ability to succeed on tests, WBW mentions that this was more pronounced in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. He did not mention China.

    In any case, I think what he is measuring isn’t really about worse outcomes for women and children. I think it’s more a case of countries where parents may not live with their children because they are earning a living that helps to pay for their children to go to school.

  33. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – I think it’s important to recognize that in other countries, feminists oppose polygamy because of its effects on women.

    Anyhow I re-read your comment and I think you are saying that child marriage is not linked to polygamy because they are more of a problem in India and China.

    Child brides are common outside India.

    It’s an issue in Afghanistan where the girls are often wed to men much older than them.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2216553/International-Day-Girl-Child-2012-Devastating-images-terrifying-world-child-brides.html

    It’s a problem in Africa, too. Polygamy is legal in many African countries.

    http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/341/facts.html

    It’s a problem in Nepal, where polygamy is legal in certain circumstances:

    http://www.boloji.com/index.cfm?md=Content&sd=Articles&ArticleID=6507

    China is not mentioned as one of the countries where it is more common.

    “Rates of child marriage vary significantly around the globe. The highest prevalence rates are in West Africa, followed by South Asia, North Africa/Middle East, and Latin America.”

    http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACU300.pdf