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ESRI report on families ignores elephant in the corner.

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Inclusion and Youth Roderic O’Gorman has  launched a report entitled Fathers and Children from Infancy to Middle Childhood which has been published by the Economic and Social Research Institute.

The report was written by Emer Smyth and Helen Russell, both adjunct professors at Trinity College, and draws on the substantial data base compiled under the Growing Up in Ireland survey. The report is based on research among fathers of children of the 2008 cohort who were aged 9 in 2017.

Both the authors and Minister O’Gorman have emphasised the need for greater state and employer support for parents, and, in particular, for fathers, to enable them to take more time off work to be with their young children. O’Gorman referred, in this context, to the government’s decision to extend paid parental leave from 2 to 7 weeks from 2022.

Of the original 8,032 families initially interviewed, the focus group was narrowed down to families where both parents were part of the household. However, of that cohort just 5,997 had both a father and a mother who were part of the household at all stages of the interview process. Which means that just over 25% of the households surveyed were headed by just one parent for all or a part of the process (p11.)

That closely matches the findings of the 2016 Census which enumerated 218,817 one parent families – 24.4% of all family units. Over 86% of these were headed by a mother. And yet the report devotes almost none of its more than 100 pages to discussing this issue – despite it being one of the key areas of family studies in most western societies.

In particular, the absence of a father has been identified as a key factor in the likelihood that the children of a single parent household, particularly boys, will engage in harmful or even criminal behaviour. A comprehensive 2020 review of the literature on this area was conducted by a team of leading Dutch academics.

“The results suggest that growing up in single-parent families is associated with an elevated risk of involvement in crime by adolescents and that more research is needed to determine the effects of the different constituting events of single-parent families.”

Interestingly, the Smyth/Russell report only contains one common reference with the list of 74 which formed part of the Dutch review. So perhaps, the relationship of the absence of a “traditional father” and social dysfunction is simply of no interest to Irish sociologists? This would make then pretty unique, I think.

They refer to another area not addressed on the basis that “Case numbers did not permit an analysis of households with lone fathers or same-sex couples.” (vii.) That may indeed be a valid limitation, but the numbers clearly do exist to allow for a detailed study of the impact of the absence of a father.

Instead, they appear intent on drawing in various ideological theories, in particular the almost universally unfavourable references to “fathers who held a more traditional view of their role.” It does not take too deep a reading of the evidence presented to see that the conclusion drawn – that such “traditional fathers” who perceived themselves to be mainly “a financial provider” – have lower levels of involvement with their children is because they are likely to be working and therefore not with their children for most of the day.

Indeed, they state this themselves: “Longer, paid work hours tend to reduce fathers’ participation in care tasks (and vice versa).” (p5)

Their focus is on introducing to the report subjective models of “gender role ideology” and fathers who “hold egalitarian views” and therefore spend more time with their children and doing housework (p.6)

The reality is that both the definition of “traditional father” and the time fathers spend with their children is a function of the time they spend at work, which leads many men to describe themselves as a “breadwinner.” (p23.)

They also recognise this when they state that: “Compared to fathers working up to 40 hours, fathers working longer hours had reduced involvement in activities with the child while those who were not in paid employment had the highest involvement.” (p26.) Seriously, this is not exactly ground-breaking research. And it certainly does not uphold any spurious ideological theories.

One suspects that this is solely used in order to bolster the theory that a man who according to their criteria is a “traditional father” constitutes some sort of negative influence on their own children (p58). And despite marginal statistical evidence from the survey to support this, most of that again appears to be related to a person’s position in the work force.

Interestingly the reported findings in Figure 2.1 show that most interactions with children are equally shared among mothers and fathers with the exceptions being bathing and getting up and dressed in the morning which are mostly done by the mother (p22.) Which is what one would expect if the father is more likely to leave the house early to work.

Perhaps if they had concentrated more on the role of “non-traditional” fathers the report might have provided some real findings of interest. There is no better definition perhaps of a “non-traditional” father than one who does not live with his biological children – or indeed perhaps may never have lived with, or perhaps even met his biological children. He might be more likely not to regard himself as a boring old trad “breadwinner” for his progeny.

These are clearly not a marginal factor given the fact that around 25% of Irish families with children are single parent households. The starkest statistic to emerge from the report – despite the fact that the concluding paragraph devotes just 5 lines of one page from 11 to “non-resident fathers” (p76) is that whereas 79% of children said they had a very good relationship with their father when he was living with them, that was only true of 65% of children whose father was not in the family home. And that too depended, according to the authors on a closeness based on staying over with their father and a non-conflictual relationship with their mother.

Given that the proportion of single parent families in Ireland has risen dramatically and was well above the then EU average of 14.1% in 2007, that is perhaps something that ought to have inspired some of this massive research effort?

This is especially true given that there is a substantial body of research which proves that across the western countries there is a very strong correlation between the crime committed by young males and their having been raised in a one parent family.

The fact that this report dwells on theory to explain certain marginal factors and ignores the elephant in the room when it comes to the relationship which over 20% of children have with their biological father and the wider social impact this has, suggests that they already knew what they wanted to find.

The conclusion drawn by the authors and Minister O’Gorman that there need to be more state support for working fathers is all very well and good. However, it is pretty much irrelevant to those 25% of so of fathers who are not there anyway. And even less help to those children who have to deal with the consequences of that.

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