Benefits of fathers caring for children remain underestimated in several European contexts
Economics tends to treat the family as an economic unit. There is also sometimes recognition of unpaid work in the household. This does not fit many current family situations and poorly incorporates the parenting role, hence the discussion here.
Results from research in European countries focusing on father involvement and with reference to changing social structures are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, it emerges that there is an unprecedented potential for committed fathers in heterosexual dual-parent households to positively effect the well-being and education of their children. Such involvement is beneficial for children on numerous levels, leading to positive outcomes in later adult life. On the other hand, however, it is shown that fathers’ contributions are still neglected in several European contexts, particularly when the heterosexual couple is living apart. This calls for a reassessment of fathers’ role both on the level of analysis and on the level of policy-making when it comes to dissolved households.
The decline of “traditional” dual-parent households in Western societies is matched by an increased pursuit of economic autonomy by both women and men (Pepin 2019). Some scholars even question the usefulness in the application of concepts such as the “traditional” nuclear family, which seems to be a myth nowadays rather than the standard (see, for instance, Sear 2021). It has been recognised for some time that less stable relationships can result in reduced commitment, which has many economic implications (Dnes and Rowthorn 2002). Dissolution of families and the subsequent discomfort of involved children is, arguably, a problem of European relevance (Vezzetti 2010, Muliari 2017). Despite some exceptions, when the child is being contested by the parents due to the dissolution of the family, fathers seem to be persistently considered as the “breadwinners” by the European social welfare institutions, the legal arenas and by the community more generally. Such an attitude is not helpful for finding optimal strategies and allocations in the best interests of children.
Sear (2021) observes how the failure to recognize the “new” role of fathers in Western societies can ultimately have adverse health effects on children. In fact, it is well documented that caring fathers have a fundamental role for their children in terms of skills development, school performance, self-esteem, self-control in later stages of life and even for outcomes in young adult life. In particular, results yielded by recent research can be summarised as follows:
- fathers’ active interest in children’s education is positively correlated with cognitive skills development in children (Sarkadi et al 2008, Elkins and Schurer 2020);
- book reading by fathers to toddlers and small children has positive outcomes in their later linguistic development – this being particularly important for low-income families (Duursma et al. 2008);
- father-child time in education activities is associated with improved performance of children at school (Cano et al. 2019) and, in particular, for achievements in maths and reading (Rollè et al. 2019);
- fathers’ care and engagement tend to reduce the frequency of behavioural problems in boys and psychological problems in young women (Sarkadi et al. 2008);
- involved fathers also promote children’s physical health (World Health Organization 2007) and persons with caring fathers tend to invest more into their health at an adult stage of life (Schurer 2018);
- in general, children’s well-being benefits very much from an active engagement by affectionate and committed fathers (Lamb 2013).
When it comes to the appreciation of the role of fathers, things vary substantially among different European countries and within the countries themselves. In Sweden, men often take on the role of nurturing fathers and they tend to enjoy comparable rights to those enjoyed by mothers within an egalitarian framework of parenthood, in which the rights of the children are strongly secured (Duvander et al. 2017). It is important to note that in Sweden, this social evolution was made possible, among other things, by the valuable contribution of feminist thinkers and researchers to policy-making: ‘Swedish reformers had recognized that substantial equality for women in the workplace was unattainable in the absence of significant changes in the conceptualization of men’s role both at home and in the workplace’ (Lamb 2013, p. 98).
Similarly, research based on case-studies in the UK shows that fathers in heterosexual dual-parent households are effective in providing childcare, thereby complementing their partners (Brooks and Hodkinson 2020). They have an important role for the children, a role that is nowadays better recognized by the British society. Even though their positive role is not being questioned, there is still a perception of permanent disparity between fathers compared to mothers as a result of diverse social expectations and persisting social barriers for fathers (Brooks and Hodkinson 2020).
In other European countries, however, the standards continue not to be sympathetic for fathers and fail to recognize their role. In this sense, informed economic analysis could help improving things, provided that the changing role of parents within contemporary family structures would be better recognized and adequately accounted for. Economists should make an effort to find new concepts and analytical tools so to be able to better capture the complexity of contemporary families and depart from considering the nuclear family as an economic unity.
The paradoxical situation – a focus on Italy
The present discussion is limited to sketching the European context, where the changing role of fathers is happening in a paradoxical situation in which fathers appear to be theoretically more engaged then ever before in raising their children (Graf and Wojnicka 2021). At the same time, it is also a historical moment characterized by a sharp decline in the “conventional” figure of the father-breadwinner, the loss of authority of the father on a symbolic level, and the decline of the paternalistic culture (Recalcati 2019).
This seems to be particularly the case for countries such as Italy, characterized by the transformations of the symbolic sphere (Righi 2021). Despite some interesting debates and informative accounts on the reasons for supporting more balanced social policies (e.g. Guidorzi 2017, Muliari 2017), things with regards to child allocation between parents and child custody in Italy are changing relatively slowly. Cultural standards and norms stress the importance of mothers in dissolved families, but are much less inclined to accept the benefits that children can enjoy from the presence of caring and attentive fathers.
Despite some improvements, fathers are still somewhat penalized by the Italian system when they ask for child custody, and this may be ultimately to the disadvantage of their children and against their best interests.
Improved economic research could lead to practical improvements in policy
That children can benefit very much from caring fathers is well-recognized almost everywhere in Europe. Nevertheless, while some countries such as Sweden seem to have put into practice adequate policies that help fathers to bond with their children, elsewhere in Europe such policies have been far more conservative and, arguably, less effective in securing children’s best interest. When heterosexual families dissolve and both parents ask for child custody, this can lead to unbalanced parental time allocation and to legal disputes that are being managed far from optimally.
To bring improvements in countries such as Italy as well as in other European countries, policies should aim at effectively providing sensible solutions for the children’s care and custody by a proper appraisal of children’s benefits from caring and committed fathers. By better accounting for the fact the fact that family units are much less stable than in the past, economists could play a role in securing adjustments/improvements on a policy level.
One particular area in which researchers focusing on father involvement are urged to better communicate their findings to policy makers is that of education, in particular by reference to the valuable benefits that children can achieve when qualitatively spending time in educational activities with their fathers. Arguably, the contribution from economists on these topics could be much stronger and some novel contributions from the economic science in this field would be welcome.
Brooks, Rachel and Paul Hodkinson. 2020. Equal and Primary Carer Fathers and Early Years Parenting. Bristol: Bristol University Press.
Cano, Tomas, Francisco Perales and Baxter Janeen. 2019. “A matter of time: Father involvement and child cognitive outcomes.” Journal of Marriage and Family 81(1): 164-184.
Dnes, Antony, and Robert Rowthorn (Eds.). 2002. The law and economics of marriage and divorce. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Duursma, Elisabeth, Barbara Alexander Pan and Helen Raikes. 2008. “Predictors and outcomes of low-income fathers’ reading with their toddlers.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 23(3): 351-365.
Duvander, Ann-Zofie, Linda Haas and Sara Thalberg. 2017. “Fathers on Leave Alone in Sweden: Toward a More Equal Parenthood?” Comparative perspectives on work-life balance and gender equality. Cham: Springer, 125-145.
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From: pp.12-14 of WEA Commentaries 12(2), August 2022