There is no question that we have seen an increase in single-parent households in recent decades. The question is how this is effecting the children in these homes and how does it effects society as a whole? Social Psychology examines the psychology concerned with the way an individual’s thoughts, feelings and behavior are influenced by others (Weiten, 2010).
Over the last 40 years, the number of children growing up in fatherless homes has at least doubled. Also, during the last 40 years there has been a substantial increase in juvenile delinquencies, teenage pregnancies, teen suicides and a number of other problems plaguing our younger culture and families (Weiten, 2008).
The psychological meaning that a fathers departure or absence has on the child depends, in part, on the kind of family relationship they had before the father left (Shinn, 1978). Our youth today are faced with many challenges, including growing up in fatherless homes, so from a social psychology perspective there are many factors that contribute to the development of risky or maladaptive behavior in adolescents.
These risk factors include, but are certainly not limited to, lack of parental involvement or involvement from a caring adult, poor academic achievement and easy access to illegal possessions such as drugs, guns or alcohol (AJPH, 2001).
Looking at this issue through a cognitive perspective, many psychologist feel that there is a direct link between a fathers absence and a child’s cognitive development. The cognitive perspective is the area of psychology that focuses on mental processes such as memory, thinking, problem solving, language and decision-making (Weiten, 2008).
Shinn reviewed studies showing detrimental effects of father absence on
children’s cognitive development and assessing a child’s IQ, achievement and school performance. He studied the different effects associated with the absence of the father. He considered such things as cause, duration and onset of the fathers absence. He also took into consideration the age, sex, race and economic status of the child and family (Shinn, 1978).
The evidence indicates that economic hardship, high levels of anxiety, and low parental involvement are critical factors for the causation of poor cognitive performance in children without fathers (Shinn, 1978). Researchers have often made the link between healthy cognitive development and frequent interactions with parents. They have also identified a direct link between a father’s nurturance and a child’s IQ. Based on this theory, psychologist also feel that lack of healthy interaction may hamper cognitive development (Shinn, 1978).
According to Shinn “the evidence shows that rearing in father-absent families or in families in which fathers have little supportive interaction with their children is often associated with poor performance on cognitive tests. The findings are generally consistent with the hypothesis that children’s interaction with their parents fosters cognitive development and that a reduction in interaction hinders it “( p. 321).
Interestingly, the mother may be able to compensate for the lack of father involvement when dealing with only one child. However, as the size of the family grows the less interaction the mother can have with each child. Another important factor in maternal involvement is economic well being. When single mothers spend their energy focusing on economic situation, they have little time available for spending time with their children (Shinn, 1978).
When we look at this issue from a behavioral perspective, we must focus on the environment that the children are subjected to and the observable events that they may be engaged in (Weiten, 2008). Social research continues to be increasingly concerned about how a child’s development and well being is affected by their living conditions. The increasing numbers of divorce and children being born to unwed mothers translates to more children living with only one parent. In a nationwide probability study of 1,000 children from the ages of 10-17 years old that came from either single parent and stepfamilies had much higher rates of victimization when compared to other children coming from two biological parents living in the same household (Turner 2007).
Children from single parent or stepfamilies also demonstrated and elevated risk in being victimized by a family
perpetrator such as siblings stepparents or even biological parents. The risk of victimization within single-parent families was compounded by their lower socioeconomic condition and the fact that they lived in more violence neighborhoods and attended rougher schools (Turner 2007).
Although the evidence seems to suggest that growing up in a fatherless household can lead to risky behavior, effect cognitive development and may result in vulnerability to victimization, is blaming the absent father the only valid argument?
When evaluating this argument it is extremely important to realize that the definition of absent father is loosely based. The complexity of this issue needs to be assessed after examining the cause of the parents absence, the duration, the circumstances surrounding the separation and a number of other factors.
Critical thinking is always essential in evaluating any argument. Ruscio (2006) contends that in order to reach valid scientific conclusions we must use the “FiLCHeRS” method. This method requires that we engage Falsifiability , Logic, Comprehensiveness Replicabilty and Sufficiency. If a claim or argument meets this criteria we can say it is valid (Ruscio 2006).
As we are employing this method it is important to recognize that this argument rests on correlational evidence and correlation is no assurance of causation. Yes, it is true that there has been an increase in social problems among fatherless children, but it is also true that there has been a major cultural change. We have seen a surge in mass media and the internet, we have seen a decline in organized religion, the decline of sexual morals along with many other cultural developments (Weiten, 2008).
Looking at other alternative explanations is helpful in determining the validity of an argument. In this case fatherless households, children and mothers may also experience crises do to divorce or other socioeconomic realities. There may be extenuating circumstances that lead to negative outcomes (Weiten, 2008).
Lastly, recognizing and avoiding common fallacies such as irrelevant reasoning or slippery slope rational can weaken analogies and create a false sense of desperation. For example, by implying that society will be committing a social suicide is a little extreme and quite an exaggeration (Weiten, 2008).
Although we can find a number of flaws in this argument, it does not mean that the fathers in families are unimportant. On the contrary, a common thread in the maladaptive behavior was lack of parental involvement. Regardless of whether or not a fatherless home was the cause of many problems it is evident that coming from a fatherless home contributes to the some of the social problems faced in America today.
(2001). 200027: Encourage Healthy Behavior in Adolescents. American Journal of Public Health, 91(3), 508-510. Retrieved May 1, 2010 from Academic Search Complete database.
Ruscio, J. (2006). Critical thinking in psychology (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Shinn, M. (1978). Father absence and children’s cognitive development. Psychological Bulletin, 85(2), 295-324. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.85.2.295.
Turner, H., Finkelhor, D., & Ormrod, R. (2007). Family structure variations in patterns and predictors of child victimization. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77(2), 282-295. doi:10.1037/0002-94184.108.40.2062.
Weiten, W. (2008). Psychology: themes and variations. (7th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.