True or false: Nearly half of all children whose parents have divorced and who are living with their mothers have not seen their fathers in more than a year.
You don't have to turn your newspaper upside down for the answer. It is true, according to research published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. The article, written by Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Christine Winquist Nord, a sociologist and demographer with Child Trends Inc., a private firm in the District, is based on research that was done as part of the National Survey of Children. That survey to study children's well-being was first done in 1976 with a nationally representative household sample of 2,300 children, according to Nord.
A second survey, upon which this research is based, was conducted in 1981 on a subgroup of 1,423 children to look at the effects of marital disruption. The children ranged from 11 to 16 years of age and included children from the first survey who were in high- conflict families or broken marriages, as well as children whose biological parents were still married.
One of the most striking findings of the research was that 49 percent of the children of divorced parents had not seen the nonresident parent for more than a year. Only one child out of every six had some form of regular, weekly contact with his or her father.
"It amazes all of us," says Nord, but why it is happening is not clear. "Part of it is if people have moved away, there is going to be less contact. Also . . . as kids get older, there might be less reason for the fathers to see them. Obviously, child support has some effect. If there's no support, there's no contact, but you don't know which came first. The longer the separation, the less the contact.
"It's not clear how much the fathers are dropping out from their own desires to do so, or how much the mother doesn't want them. She's trying to avoid conflict by avoiding contact with him. She ends up with most of the responsibility, and inevitably she ends up with most of the decision-making. Once the father has less direct responsibility for the child, he adopts more of a friendship role."
Most of the children lived with their mothers, although a small sample lived with their fathers. The children saw the absent parent an average of 7.4 days a month in the first two years after separation, but that dropped off dramatically to an average of two times a month after two years of separation. Fifty-five percent said they never saw the absent parent in separations that had lasted two to nine years. After 10 years, 74 percent of them said they never saw the parent. The majority said they had never slept over at their parent's new home during the first two years of separation and 42 percent said they'd never been in it. Only 14 percent said they had a place to keep their things at the absent parent's home, although that figure rose to 25 percent in the two to nine years following separation -- and then dropped back to 14 percent when the separation had gone on for 10 years or more.
"Contact with the outside parent, if it occurs at all," the researchers wrote, "is usually social or recreational. Among the minority of children who had seen their parents during the past week, only a tenth had been given assistance with schoolwork; slightly more than a fifth had worked on projects together, such as making something, cooking or sewing; about a fourth had played some game or sport."
The researchers noted that the children were generally unwilling to be critical of the outside parents. But some patterns emerged clearly: "Children with fathers living outside the home are decidedly more discontent with their paternal relationship than those residing with their father. More than half say that they do not get all the affection they need, and nearly as many say they are only fairly close or not close at all to their fathers. Outside fathers are also faulted for not making clear and consistent rules and for not being firm enough."
The researchers also found that remarriage and stepparents did not complicate relationships with the nonresident parent and they concluded that children's abilities to deal with the complexities of expanded families were "impressive." These children seem to do better than children whose parents have dropped out of their lives, they found. Yet it is the latter that is happening as fathers move from one household to the next. Biological parenthood is becoming as impermanent as marriage, they conclude -- a troubling finding, indeed.