The Research Case for Involving Young Men in Young Parents Services
Harald Breiding-Buss, Jonathan Young
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of teenage parenthood in the developed world. Government policy is targeted at both reducing rates of teenage pregnancy and alleviating negative social impact for mother and child.
In New Zealand, teenage parenthood is generally associated with single motherhood although no reliable statistics are available about how many teenage mothers are in a functional relationship with the father of their child.
Due to their age they are much less likely to live in a ‘nuclear family’ situation than older parents are, and a father would be largely invisible to outsiders providing services to the family.
Where parents do live together the New Zealand benefit system offers a strong financial incentive to low income families to conceal the true relationship between the parents, which may further inflate perceived rates of single motherhood amongst teenage mothers.
Unlike many other countries such as the UK or Australia as well as some US states, New Zealand does not have policies or government-funded or operated institutions that provide services to fathers, advocacy or policy advice on father inclusion, or education for service providers on inclusive practice and policy.
To the knowledge of the authors no independent community organisation or provider receives government funding to provide such services either. This leaves father inclusion up to the goodwill of the provider.
Yet New Zealand has internationally high rates of children being brought up by sole fathers. 2001 Census Data (Statistics NZ, 2002) counted 23,000 sole father households with a total of 35,000 children, or 16.5% of all sole parent households (2006 Census data not yet available at the time of writing this paper).
While sole fatherhood is only one indicator of the contribution of men to childraising, the lack of policy and research focus on what is so clearly a rather significant factor in New Zealand’s social makeup is unsettling, even reckless.
The voice of teenage fathers is particularly hard to make heard. Once a teenage girl becomes pregnant, all other issues become secondary to the onset of motherhood. For teenage boys, becoming a father is continued to be treated as only one amongst a number of issues, even though for the boy fatherhood may become defining for how he sees himself.
Unlike an older man, a young man is not actually expected to move in with the girlfriend and raise the family with her. Therefore social pressures facilitate a girl’s transition to motherhood and prepare her for single motherhood, but hinder a boy’s transition to fatherhood and prepare him for a minimal role as an absent father.
This paper argues that exclusion of teenage fathers from services for teenage parents robs both young men and their children of important development opportunities, and prevents services from reaching children while in their fathers’ care.
Research on NZ Fathers
Very little research has been done in New Zealand on any aspect of male parenting and involvement with their children. This is regrettable as overseas research is not easily transferable to the New Zealand situation because social constructions of fatherhood vary widely and have such a strong impact on father involvement.
In the context of teenage fatherhood, four research angles are relevant:
1. The impact of fatherhood on the young man’s own development.
2. The impact of fatherhood on the child.
3. The role of fathers in prevention of unplanned teenage pregnancy.
4. Attitudes of NZ society to teenage fatherhood.
Some information is available on the impact fatherhood has on a young man. Breiding-Buss et al. (2003) conducted a survey of 24 fathers who had their firstborn at 21 years or under (average age: 18) and found very high levels of motivation.
In fact it appears generally not realised quite how strongly a young man is affected by having a baby and how it changes his outlook on life and perception of himself (Rouch, 2005)
Amongst the needs the young fathers most consistently identified in this study, ‘Having someone to talk to’ ranked near the top, only slightly below job or education related needs. Respondents were also almost unanimous in that they wanted a bigger role being involved with their baby.
This applied even for those who at the time of the interview lived with their baby. The authors conclude that their study indicates “that teenage fathers do not feel appreciated or in any way supported in their role, and their increasing absence over time may have to do with an increasing feeling of uselessness and not being wanted”.
Overseas research, which has been reviewed as a part of this study generally supports the idea of highly motivated but undersupported young men, although much of the research is mother-focused, ie deals with the impact of the father on the mother-child unit.
Newcomb & Loeb (1999), for example, question whether simply encouraging a young man to be an involved father is enough, or even in the best interest of the child, if significant help cannot be given to him to achieve this goal.
No research whatsoever could be found on teenage fathers who become sole parents, although four such men were involved in the study by Breiding-Buss et al (2003). According to data from Census 2001, in 8.8% of households headed by a teen parent that parent was male (Statistics NZ, 2002).
Some significant quantitative US studies (for example, Storey et al (2000)) have found that fathers are subject to substantial hormonal changes during a partner’s pregnancy and after childbirth.
Closeness to the infant is required to maintain these changes, which include decreased levels of testosterone and estradiol and increased levels of cortisol and prolactin similar to those found in new mothers. Incidentally, increased cortisol levels are an indicator for depression.
A study conducted on a particularly paternally involved marmoset species by Princeton University researchers (Kozorovistkiy et al, 2006) indicates structural changes to some areas of the brain as a response to fatherhood, which also require closeness to the infant or young child to be maintained.
Overall such studies indicate that parenthood is not only a social but also a health issue for men. Removal of a new fathers from his baby is likely to trigger a physiological as well as social/emotional response.
New Zealand family policy generally focuses on the ‘best interest of the child’ as its guiding principle, and as well as a youth development angle, the impact of teenage fatherhood on the child has to be considered.
No studies have been conducted in New Zealand examining the impact of the involvement of teenage fathers on various development indicators of the children. Overseas studies focus on the impact of the father on the mother-child relationship, especially in the context of the mother’s social and financial status.
This influence can be both beneficial (Bloom, 1998) or counterproductive (Fagot et al, 1998) depending on the state of the relationship between the two parents. Westney et al (1988) link beneficial effects to the father’s knowledge about sexuality, pregnancy, prenatal care and early childhood development.
There is a growing overseas body of research on the beneficial effects of intensive father involvement especially during early childhood. While the Christchurch Health & Development Study suggests that a mother’s educational status determines that of her child more than the father’s does, father influence appears crucial to harness a child’s full educational potential.
Toddlers with lots of father playtime exhibit enhanced problem-solving skills by 18 months already, for example (Labrell, 1990).
IQ level (Yogman et al., 1995), language development (Magill-Evans and Harrison, 1999) and interest in books (Lyytinnen et al, 1998) have all been associated with the father’s parenting style as has been children’s social-emotional development in a substantial number of overseas’ studies.
In a comprehensive review of the research for the International Fatherhood Summit in Oxford (2003), Lewis and Lamb (2004) conclude that “results like that suggest that, in the long term, patterns of father-child closeness might be crucial predictors of adult psychosocial adjustment”.
None of these studies were specific to teenage fathers, however, or in most cases even included any.
There is much less research on step-parenthood, but a large New Zealand study by Fleming et al (2001) suggests that even very young children strongly distinguish between step- and biological parents.
“Even those who were quite young were very clear who their natural parents were, and it was their natural parents they looked to for love and guidance, and to whom they gave the right to discipline and control.”, and “Even a loving step-parent was set aside when a natural parent comes on the scene.” (Fleming in: Father & Child, 2000).
No reliable figures are available in New Zealand about how many young children end up in the primary care of teenage boys.
Census data only shows such situations where the parent-child(ren) situation makes up a household, but does not reliably count situations where the father or mother live with someone else, for example their own family.
The 8.8% of sole teenage fathers as a proportion of all sole teenage parents that Census indicates must be considered conservative, as the Census undercount is highest for young males.
Anecdotal evidence from the Father & Child Trust also suggests that it is not uncommon for teenage fathers to care for their child for around half of the time or more, while the mother is counted as a sole parent for benefit and service purposes.
Wherever teenage fathers spend such significant amounts of time with their children, and make decisions on their behalf, the impact on the children is obviously very high.
The link between father involvement and teenage pregnancy is very well established in research to the point that it is curious that it hasn’t made its way into policy. US and UK health data show that father presence is the most predictive indicator for teenage pregnancy emerging when other social indicators (education, income, race) are adjusted for.
Ellis et al (2003) used data from the Christchurch Health and Development Study to show that it was father involvement during early childhood rather than the teenage years, which predicted the risk for early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy and even earlier-than- average first menstruation.
“Early father-absent girls [where the father left before age 5] had the highest rates of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by late father absence girls, followed by father-present girls” (Ellis in: Father & Child, 2004).
A child of a teenage mother is more likely than the average child to grow up without any significant father contact during the early years, putting girls at the highest risk of themselves becoming teenage mothers.
Social services operate in the framework of a society’s norms and attitudes, which have a large impact on the success of any intervention. New Zealander’s attitudes towards teenage fatherhood have not been researched, however the Father & Child Trust’s Teen Dads study (Breiding-Buss et al., 2003) included a question on whether the young men rated such attitudes more positive or more negative on a scale from 1-5.
At 2.4 the average rating was negative, but not extremely so.
It was now-older fathers who looked back on their years as teenage fathers who were most negative about society’s attitudes, but the answers suggest that for young men at the ‘coalface’ at the time negative attitudes are not hugely felt, or perhaps offset by support they may get from their own family or friends.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner conducted a telephone survey of 2,000 New Zealanders around their attitudes towards fatherhood and shared parenting.
The results (Julian, 1999) suggest very large majorities for a shared parenting approach in every aspect of parenting the interviewers mentioned. 96% believed in equal responsibilities for ‘discipline’, and even ‘day-to-day care’, the parenting responsibility getting the least votes for equal sharing, was favoured by 65% as a fully shared responsibility.
Only about half of respondents were as confident in fathers’ parenting skills as they are with mothers’, however. Interestingly, substantially more men (52%) than women (38%) agreed with the statement that ‘women are better childrearers’ indicating what I have called a ‘confidence gap’ in a previous paper (Breiding-Buss, 2001).
A 92% majority believed that equally shared parenting should be a social expectation, and 85% supported the idea of more parenting courses for men. 59% of people disagreed, however, that work is a major barrier for men to be involved fathers.
The interviewers did not specifically ask about teenage parents, but given the social consensus the study indicates about parents in general it is unlikely that results would differ significantly.
Teenage respondents were more likely than average, however, to take a more traditional-stereotypical view towards parenting. ‘Only’ 70%, for example, believed that fathers and mothers should share equally in helping children with ‘personal problems’, compared to 91% in the 25-34 age group.
‘Work’ ranked second in a list of factors affecting teenage fathers’ parenting performance in the Teen Fathers survey (Breiding-Buss et al., 2003) and therefore appears to be more important to young fathers than older ones.
Services for Teen Parents
Services for teen parents are generally driven by communities who identify needs for which government sometimes funds programmes, but there appears to be no government-wide strategy to the issue of teenage parenthood.
What services are available, and how they are run, varies widely between locations as a result, and this paper cannot attempt to summarise them.
Teenage mothers are often one of a number of ‘targeted’ groups in government-funded programmes, such as Family Start (called Early Start in Christchurch) or Parents as First Teachers. Probably the most significant government-funded service for teenage parents are the Teen Parent Units, which are usually attached to High Schools but sometimes stand-alone units.
These are the result of higher per-student funding from the Ministry of Education for students under 19 with a child (not necessarily dependent), and most Teen Parent Units have an attached childcare facility (not funded by MinEdu).
While funding is not gender-specific and is also not targeted at primary or sole caregivers, teenage fathers appear almost completely absent from these units.
Few, if any, major providers of social or health services have policies that require staff to, wherever possible, work with both parents, and as a result services are focused generally at the mother-child unit, with the father being a mere factor influencing this relationship.
Consequently the gap between funding for services helping teenage mothers and fathers is enormous.
Counting staff with both Teen Parent Units and social service providers it can be conservatively estimated that at least 150 fulltime-equivalents would be funded by government to directly meet the educational and social needs of teenage mothers nationwide.
There is not one such position for teenage fathers, and we believe the Father & Child Trust’s community-funded 0.33 FTE to be the only position in New Zealand dedicated to teenage fathers.
Research by Mitchell and Chapman (2006) based on interviews with fathers and mothers both pre- and postnatally found that the most important issues for fathers are not what their female partners thought they were.
In a mother-centred service system this means, according to the authors, that even well-meaning attempts to provide services for fathers may hit beside the mark because they address what women think men need, rather than what men themselves are concerned with.
A New Vision
The lack of research on teenage fathers is frustrating and should obviously be addressed if teenage parenthood is considered a significant social policy issue.
Such research should be aimed at getting reliable data about the number of teenage fathers and their living circumstances as well as best ways to engage them and support them as parents.
Probably the most convincing argument for inclusion of teen dads in services is because, according to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s research (1999), in New Zealand there is social consensus that parenting should be shared equally between fathers and mothers.
Service provision that almost exclusively targets mothers may have historically valid reasons but it is contrary to what New Zealanders believe in. There is a danger that such service provision creates its own reality and operates only within a social subculture that is increasingly at odds with changes in society overall that have occurred over the last 20-30 years.
There is also an internationally consistent body of research that says involved fathers are good for children in a variety of ways that is often defined by the social context of the country and culture they live in.
More importantly, research has not yet found any examples where involved fatherhood is not beneficial to a child provided it is not accompanied by extreme parenting styles.
Even research indicating that shared parenting is not good for the children where there is high conflict between parents appears to have been superseded by longitudinal studies claiming that especially in high conflict situations closeness to the non-resident parent makes all the difference (Farrell, 2003).
And lastly there is the young man himself. If we accept that for teenage girls motherhood should not mean a disadvantage in continuing education for her own sake, then we should also apply some of that thinking and compassion to teenage boys.
There is some evidence, as presented in the research section of this paper, that fatherhood affects physiological and psychological changes in young (and older) men.
If they are allowed to bond closely with their babies, as would often happen in the weeks around childbirth, separating them from their babies because the relationship with the mother has broken down will have profound effects which a young man is less likely to be able to process than an older man.
It is probably not a coincidence that teenage fathers are so overrepresented in our youth prisons.
What would a fully inclusive service look like and how can it be achieved?
First of all there is a problem with the ‘primary caregiver’ model of most service provision in the pre-school years. It assumes that only the person who spends most time with the child has to be targeted by the service as only this person is likely to affect the child’s development in a major way.
If only one parent is targeted with support and parent education, then such ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ care arrangements are being cemented in through this ‘upskilling’ of only one parent, and it robs the parents of options as they are increasingly getting trapped in those roles.
Service provision does not merely respond to a caregiving situation that is already there: it has a substantial impact on creating the arrangement by making other options less feasible because the other parent has less capability.
Service providers should not look for a primary caregiver but should address services to both parents equally regardless of the status of the relationship between the parents.
Service providers also need to take a long term view of the development of the child, whose care arrangements are likely to change over time. Davey (1999), in a statistical review of data about NZ single fathers, found that the older a child is, the more likely they are to live with dad only.
This is especially true for teenage boys. Father & Child Trust anecdotal evidence also suggests that mothers often actively look for the support of the biological father as the children grew older, even if they have fought hard to prevent any input of the father in the earlier years.
As the relationship between the parents is a key factor in cooperation about the child, service providers need to pay special attention to facilitating relationship and communication skills, rather than accepting that a breakup is more or less a given for teenagers.
Effective communication must continue after the relationship breakup, but the groundwork can be laid before, and mediating between the parents (rather than advocating for only one) should be considered as the first line of intervention during breakups. Employment law, for example, now states that disagreements need to be tried to be resolved between the parties concerned before they can be escalated.
In teenage parental breakups too often the case is escalated to obtaining Court Orders without notice before any other solution is even tried at a more personal level.
Social and community workers need to engage with both parents so they can hear both sides of a story. Where they act on the strength of only one side of the story, considerable damage can be done to the long-term welfare of a child, and doors can be closed for a reconciliation some time in the future.
In acting in this way, social and community workers are role-modelling a cooperative approach to parenting and, when it comes to it, conflict resolution. Consulting and working with the other parent therefore becomes the norm.
As Flemings’ (2000) research has shown the biological father (or mother) cannot easily be replaced by a step-parent, even if that step-parent is more accessible to the service provider.
This does not mean a step-parent should be ignored or go unsupported, but this should not be at the expense of the biological parent, and neither should a step-parent be promoted as an alternative to the biological parent.
A father has a relationship with his child that is to some degree independent to his relationship with the mother of the child, and this father-child relationship should not be judged by the quality of the father-mother relationship.
The needs of teenage fathers and mothers often overlap: both need parenting assistance, support and education. Both need a social context, ie connections with other parents that are in similar situations.
Both have education and career needs, and for both having a baby may actually provide an impetus to pursue either more seriously than before. Both need a place to live and money for themselves and for baby.
Both need to be exposed to role models of successful cooperation – within or outside a relationship between mother and father. Perhaps we have become so careful in not over-promoting a flawed ideal of the ‘happy family’ with mum, dad and kids that now we are not even presenting this option at all anymore to young parents.
And both have personal development needs in order to successfully make the transition from woman/man to mother/father at the same time as making the transition from child to adult.
This is where women’s and men’s experiences differ significantly and where they each need mentors (and in some cases also counsellors) that help with this. Parents need validation in their role – for young fathers such validation is entirely missing.
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Statistics NZ (2002): Data from 2001 Census referred to here is available through their web site at: http://www.stats.govt.nz/census%2