Research and Good Fathering

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Since the 1990s, a new body of research on fatherhood has emerged that goes beyond the simple dichotomy of presence versus absence to a deeper understanding of the multidimensional levels of parental involvement that make a difference in children's development. There is enough evidence to suggest that positive and nurturing parental involvement can make an important contribution to the healthy development of children. In addition to providing economic resources for their children, positively involved fathers can make a difference in their children's lives by providing options, being a good role model, and helping them to negotiate complex social interactions. Children who grow up with in-

A father in San Antonio, Texas, feeds his infant son. Fathers' attitudes and reports about their infants and their role as fathers have been found to predict a secure father-infant attachment at twelve months. (Sandy Felsenthal/Corbis)

volved, caring fathers tend to be psychologically better adjusted, engage in less risky behavior, and have healthy relationships with others.

Given that almost a quarter of American children live without a father and that most of these children live in poverty, policymakers and others have placed fathers, especially low-income fathers, on the national spotlight. There is, however, little research on how low-income men interact with their children, how parental involvement alters their own developmental trajectories, and what barriers they need to overcome to become positive influences in their children's lives. This type of information will be crucial for researchers who study antecedents of father involvement and impacts on children, but also for policymakers and educators who promote positive father involvement.




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Belsky, J. "Parent, Infant, and Social-Contextual Antecedents of Father-Son Attachment Security.'' Developmental Psychology 32 (1996):905-913.

Brown, S. S., and L. Eisenberg. The Best Intentions. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1995.

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Cox, M. J., M. T. Owen, V. K. Henderson, and N. A. Margand. ''Prediction of Infant-Father and Infant-Mother Attachment.'' Child Development 28 (1992):474-483.

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Palkovitz, R. ''Reconstructing 'Involvement': Expanding Conceptualizations of Men's Caring in Contemporary Families.'' In Alan J. Hawkins and David C. Dollahite eds., Generative Fathering: Beyond Deficit Perspectives. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.

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Natasha J. Cabrera


Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), caused by exposure of the fetus to alcohol, is diagnosed on the basis of three types of birth defects: growth retardation, physical anomalies, and central nervous system dysfunction. The amount of alcohol necessary to cause FAS is unknown, but is thought to be related to timing and duration of exposure. The best intervention is prevention. Encouraging women to abstain from alcohol use during pregnancy is the best way to prevent FAS.

There is no cure for FAS, only treatment for the associated complications such as attention deficit disorder. Children diagnosed with FAS are at risk for long-term effects. Facial characteristics, frequently associated with FAS, may change with age. However, growth problems persist throughout adulthood. The most serious birth defects relate to the central nervous system, and these also continue into adulthood. Affected children may have decreased IQ scores and behavioral disorders. The incidence of FAS is 1 to 2 infants per 1,000 live births.



Bauer, Charles. "Perinatal Effects of Perinatal Drug Exposure Neonatal Aspects.'' Clinics in Perinatology 26 (1999):87-106. Jones, K. L. ''Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.'' Pediatrics in Review

8(1996):122-126. Kenner, Carole, and Karen D'Apolito. ''Outcomes for Children Exposed to Drugs In Utero.'' Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing 26 (1997):595-603. Martinez, Alma, J. Colin Partridge, Xylina Bean, and H. William Taeusch. "Perinatal Substance Abuse.'' In H. William Taeusch and Roberta Ballard eds., Avery's Diseases of the Newborn. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1998.

Meica M. Efird


Many people believe that firstborn children, because of their privileged position in the family, behave differently than later-born children. Although parents, siblings, and nonparents probably overemphasize the influence of birth order, evidence suggests that the experiences of individuals are related to their ordinal position in the family.

Psychologists have studied the distinctive personality of firstborn children for more than a century. Alfred Adler, the father of individual psychology, postulated that the child's position in the family has a monumental effect on the child's personality. He believed that the firstborn child is dethroned by the birth of a sibling and the firstborn must now share parental attention with a rival. In order to cope with this traumatic betrayal, firstborns become problem children or they strongly emulate their parents. Because of their identification with their parents and their perceived loss of status, power and authority become extremely important to firstborn children. Although Adler's theory was not based on empirical research, it spurred thousands of studies that related birth order to everything from extrasensory perception to juvenile delinquency.

Many of the commonly held ideas about firstborns originate from inferences about their interactions with parents and siblings. The extant literature suggests that parents harbor expectations of how firstborns should behave and parents act in accordance with those beliefs. During infancy, mothers attend to firstborns by responding to and stimulating them more than latterborns. Mothers also tend to rate their firstborn infants as more difficult than later-born children. This finding may reflect that mothers feel more comfortable in their parenting role by the time a subsequent child enters the family. The relative amount of attention that firstborn preschoolers receive tends to decline with the birth of siblings. Nevertheless, firstborn children continue to experience distinctive relationships with their parents. Investigators have found that parents expect higher achievement, are more controlling, and make added demands on their firstborn young children. Moreover, throughout childhood, fathers tend to be more involved with their firstborns relative to later-born children.

Firstborns also seem to initiate more interactions, both positive and negative, with their younger siblings than vice versa. They are more likely to engage their younger siblings in conversation, but they are also more likely to be verbally disapproving. As compared to older peers, firstborn children tend to instruct younger siblings by providing appropriate feedback and guidance. The opportunity to be a "teacher" may help explain why firstborn children, on average, have higher IQs than only or youngest children.

Speech and Intelligence

Firstborn children are temporarily only children and thus are exposed to one-to-one speech with their parents. When a new child is born, firstborns and their siblings receive less child-directed speech and are privy to multiparty speech. Specifically, mothers appear to provide more linguistic support and more complex grammatical statements to their firstborns even when their firstborns and latterborns are observed at the same age. Concordantly, firstborn toddlers have larger vocabularies, reach language milestones earlier, and demonstrate more sophisticated grammar than their siblings. The early language competence of firstborns may partially explain the proclivity of firstborns to achieve in school. In contrast, later-born children's skill in conversational speech and their expertise in understanding the mental states of others potentially contribute to their renowned social acumen.

On average, firstborn children have been cited as having higher intelligence levels than later-born children. For example, one study examined scores on the 1965 National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test and, regardless of family size, the scores tended to be higher for firstborns. The confluence model has been proposed to explain the superior intellectual rankings of firstborns. In this paradigm, a child's intellectual level depends on the average intellectual level of all the family members. When a new child is born into the family, the intellectual environment declines. This model states that, in general, large families have impoverished intellectual climates, as there are many immature minds for several years. Also, age spacing between siblings is an important variable in this theory. Small age differences are beneficial to the firstborn in that the firstborn is not exposed to very young siblings for too long. In addition, the firstborn has the opportunity to teach siblings, which facilitates the crystallization of knowledge of the firstborn. Applying the confluence model, if one could choose an ordinal position, one would prefer to be a firstborn with a younger sibling close in age. With its emphasis on average intellectual atmosphere, the confluence model has created much debate.

Some of the implications of the theory have not received support in the literature. For example, additional adults in the household, such as grandparents, do not seem to increase children's IQ as would seem to be predicted by the confluence model. Further-

Literature suggests that parents harbor expectations of how firstborns should behave, then act in accordance with those beliefs. During infancy, for example, mothers attend to firstborns by responding to and stimulating them more than latterborns. (Tim Pannell/Corbis)

more, differences found in IQ among firstborns, latterborns, and only children are typically small and unstable.

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