Thanks to the work of the National Fatherhood Initiative, the public has become more aware of the importance of fatherhood in the lives of children, especially boys. Yet the greater challenge may be persuading policy makers to see how responsible fatherhood and marriage go hand in hand. As a new study by researchers at the Urban Institute and Child Trends documents, marriage and intact families significantly boost the effects of involved fatherhood in protecting teens against juvenile delinquency and substance abuse.
The researchers crunched data from National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that involved three rounds of surveys between 1997 and 1999 of a cohort of teens (average age between 14 and 15) who were disproportionately from minority (black and Hispanic) and broken homes. Thirty seven (37) percent had engaged in a delinquent activity during the observation period; 45 percent had used substances.
In their multivariate analysis, the researchers found that while the effects are small or modest, higher levels of father involvement in the emotional and behavioral lives of their children consistently lowers teen risks of transitioning into delinquent behavior and substance use (odds ratio 0.99 for both dependent variables). The correlation remained significant even after controlling for other covariables, including mother involvement, other father and mother characteristics, immigration status, and socioeconomic status.
Yet "living in an intact family" exerted a greater independent effect in lowering teen risk behaviors (odds ratios: 0.81 for first delinquency, 0.83 for first substance use). In addition, living with a larger number of siblings also lowered a teen first's substance use (Odds Ratio, 0.89; p<.001).
Using models that included "two-way interaction terms," the researchers measured the strength of father involvement in protecting teens from risk behaviors relative to family structure and gender. As expected, the effects of father involvement in lowering risks of both behaviors (and net of other factors) were significantly stronger for teens from intact families than teens from non-intact families, as well as for sons than daughters.
While the researchers do not press the point, their findings suggest that responsible fatherhood may not mean much unless fathers marry—or stay married to—the mothers of their children.