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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Study: Single Fathers Manage Parenting Role Successfully

LAS CRUCES - A parenting study showed encouraging results about how well single fathers in the West are raising their children. Esther Devall, a New Mexico State University researcher, recently studied 90 families to compare parenting styles and resulting behavior in their children.


Devall, associate professor in the family and consumer sciences department, and a colleague from the University of Nevada surveyed 30 married couples, 30 divorced custodial mothers and 30 divorced custodial fathers in Nevada, one of the states with the highest percentage of single dads, along with New Mexico. The researchers also interviewed one child between the ages of 6 and 10 from each family.

Devall said the study showed single fathers were doing as well as married mothers in their parenting role. "You might think fathers would be alike in their parenting, whether single or married, but that wasn't the case," she said. "The married fathers were actually the most different from the other parents. They weren't as likely to be involved with their child and had less positive parenting behaviors."

Because single fathers are the primary parents, they were more likely than married fathers to communicate and spend time with their children, Devall said. "When there are two parents, it seems that fathers interact less with their child and allow the mom to take the primary role."

Devall said the study showed children from single-parent households had more behavioral problems than children from two-parent households. "They had more externalizing behaviors such as bragging, destroying other things, lying or cheating," said Devall. "But the surprising difference is that single dads seemed to be dealing better with the change in their parenting role."

Devall said single fathers in the study were doing quite well and had become more positive in their parenting following the divorce. Single mothers, on the other hand, had done the opposite, perhaps because they were struggling with poverty, she said.

"Economic strain has a negative impact on your parenting," she said. "When parents are economically stressed, they may exhibit less positive parenting behavior. For example, they tend to be harsher and less consistent in their discipline. This is a concern because poor parenting is linked with behavior problems in children."

Devall said this study was particularly informative because so much of the research previously done with single parents was primarily with single mothers.

"We wanted to get a cross section and were very interested in studying single-father households because the few studies done previously with single fathers had focused on upper middle income and well-to-do dads," she said. "All the households in this study had similar economic backgrounds and were middle to lower-income families."

Devall said when looking at self-esteem, school performance and extracurricular activity involvement, children from single-parent families were doing just as well as children from two parent families. But the researchers were interested to see what differences emerged from single father households.

"Sometimes we have a bias that only women can be good parents, but the single fathers were very involved in their parenting," she said. "They had to take on both roles, just like single mothers did, of being the primary parent and the primary breadwinner."

The study showed that although single mothers and single fathers face similar challenges, they respond to them differently.

"One interesting difference is that the dads tend to make time for themselves without feeling guilty, perhaps because they are just a little more financially stable and have the resources," said Devall. "They made time to read the paper, watch a sporting event or go to the gym. The single moms didn't feel they could do that and were more highly stressed."

Devall said the single fathers in the study seemed anxious to talk about and share their parenting experiences, but there was a difference in the support systems for single mothers and single fathers. "Single mothers tend to be friends with other single mothers, whereas the single fathers didn't tend to know other single fathers. If they did turn to anybody for help, it tended to be a single mom."

She is now working to get funding for a follow-up study to look at economic strain in single-parent households. "We need to think about developing policies and programs to help single-mother families so mothers and children don't experience these negative effects."