Fathers’ Contributions to Children’s Social Development
Melinda S. Leidy, Thomas J. Schofield, and Ross D. Parke
Historical Overview and Theoretical Perspectives
Families have long been recognized as a major socialization agent for the development of
children’s social behavior. However, the definition of family has changed to view the family as a
social system in which fathers, siblings, and the marital relationship all impact social development. It
has also become increasingly important to examine the impact of contextual processes on child
social development. These include extended family, adult mentors, and children’s peers. The aim of
this chapter is to examine the links between fathers and children’s social development, especially
their relationships with peers. We define social development as the description and explanation of
changes in children’s social behavior, perceptions, and attitudes across age (Parke & Clarke-Stewart,
2010). Our chapter also focuses primarily on father’s contributions to children’s social development
in middle childhood due, in part, because children’s opportunities for social interaction with peers
and non-family adults intensify during this period as children attend school on a regular basis.
Evidence that fathers matter for children’s social development come initially from studies of
father absence. Although these studies have been criticized (Pedersen, 1976), they provide suggestive
evidence. Stolz (1954) found that children whose fathers were absent during their infancy due to
World War II had poorer peer relationships at 4 to 8 years old. Studies of the sons of Norwegian
sailors, who are away for many months at a time, pointed to the same conclusion: The boys whose
fathers were often absent were less popular and had less-satisfying peer-group relationships than
boys whose fathers were regularly available (Lynn & Sawrey, 1959).
More compelling evidence of the impact of fathers’ absence on children’s social adjustment
comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (Mott, 1994). Children in homes where the
father was absent were at a higher risk for school and peer problems. White boys and girls from
father-absent homes were less liked by their age-mates than children from father-present families.
The effects are reduced, however, when factors linked with the disruption of the father’s departure –
such as family income or long-term maternal health – are taken into account. For African-American
boys or girls, there is little evidence of adverse behavior associated with a father’s absence, perhaps
due to the traditional reliance of African-American families on extended kin networks for support
and the higher contact rates between both children (Mott, 1994) and the child’s mother (Cabrera et
al., 2008) among and non-resident African-American fathers compared to white fathers.
Recently, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study found that children whose fathers
were incarcerated were more aggressive than their peers (Wakefield, 2008). Similarly, Geller,
Garfinkel, Cooper, and Mincy (2009) concluded that children of incarcerated fathers had higher
childhood aggression and more attention problems than children whose fathers were absent due to
other reasons such as divorce or death. Clearly, the context in which paternal absence occurs is likely
to impact child outcomes. Furthermore, research with stepfather families have found that children in
stepfather families displayed higher externalizing behaviors and more negative self-feelings than
children with continuously married parents while controlling for SES and mothering (Carlson, 2006;
Leidy et al, 2011). These findings suggest that it is not simply the presence of a father figure that
impacts child outcomes but perhaps other fathering factors, such as father involvement, that
mediate the relationship between father absence and child outcomes.
Current Research Questions
To better understand the specific aspects of the father-child relationship that may be
important in explaining father’s role in social development, we propose a three different pathway
model of father influence on children’s social behavior. These three paths include lessons learned in
the context of the father-child relationship, fathers’ direct advice concerning peer relationships, and
father’s regulation of access to peers and peer-related activities (McDowell & Parke, 2009). We first
present the current research pertaining to each of these paths below. While the focus of this chapter
is on fathers, mothers play these roles as well, and thus, we will note how fathers and mothers differ
in how they influence their children’s social relationships. In accordance our theoretical view of the
embeddedness of fathers in a family system, we recognize that the effects of fathers-are best
understood in the context of the marital dyad. Current research questions on how the marital dyad
impacts the father-child relationship and child social competence will be outlined below. Finally,
research questions regarding the impact of fathers on children’s social relationships in various
cultures and subcultures will be discussed.
Quality of the Father-Child Relationship
How does the quality of the father-child relationship affect children’s social relationships?
We will examine this question using two perspectives, specifically the attachment and father-child
interaction perspectives. Furthermore, what child mediators link father-child interaction to child
social development? We focus on the three sets of mediating processes, namely affect management
skills, cognitive representational processes, and attention-regulation skills.
Fathers as Advisers and Social Guides
Fathers assume various roles in their child’s life that affect the child’s relative success in
social interactions outside the family. How do fathers impact child social relationships through their
role as social guides and advisers? Does their role change over development?
Fathers as Monitors and Sources of Social Opportunities
Parents often provide social opportunities for their children, especially younger children.
How do these social opportunities impact child social development? What role do fathers play in
facilitating children’s involvement in extracurricular activities and, in turn, in child social
relationships? In addition to providing social activities for their children, parents also monitor their
child’s whereabouts. How does parental monitoring impact child social development?
Marital Dyad as a Contributor to Children’s Peer Relationships
The marital relationship influences how fathers interact with their children, and, in turn,
children’s social competence. How do marital relationships impact child social competence? We will
address this question using direct and indirect effects models of marital–social development links.
Cultural Considerations in the Father-Child Relationship
As a corrective to the limited prior work examining the impact of father-child relationships
on children’s social competence in different cultural contexts, current research on this issue will be
examined. How do fathers impact child social competence in different cultures and among ethnic
groups in our own culture?
Research Measurement and Methodology
The study of fathers’ contributions to children’s social development has seen several
advances in research measurement and methodology. First, researchers have recognized the need
to have independent sources of data for fathering and mothering rather than relying on a single
source for reports on both parents. The use of a single reporter will inflate the correlation between
reports of mothers and fathers, thus making it less likely that both will be significant predictors of
developmental outcomes. Second by including both maternal and paternal measures in our models,
the unique contribution of fathering after controlling for maternal contributions can be assessed.
Third, there has been an increased reliance on multiple sources of information about fathering
through the use of a latent-variable approach, which has allowed researchers to consider only the
variance that is common across reporters as meaningful. It has also made possible the use of
sensitivity analyses where tests are run on each data source separately. Fourth, researchers have
recognized the importance of independent sources of data for father and social development
outcomes in order to avoid shared method variance problems. Fifth, advances in modeling
techniques permit for the testing of interactions between mothers and fathers as well as test for
differences between mothering and fathering coefficients, instead of simply assuming they are
different. Thus, we have learned some of the ways in which fathers and mothers are similar. Sixth,
assessing multiple dimensions of fathering, such as hostility or acceptance, in addition to measures
of quality of involvement (e.g. affect and management) has furthered our understanding of the roles
of fathers in their children’s lives. Seventh, being able to test for the nonlinear effects of fathering
has revealed that certain fathering dimensions may be especially beneficial or harmful to child
outcomes (Leidy et al., 2011). Eighth, more sophisticated strategies for analyzing longitudinal data
about the effects of fathering that explicitly test for change (such as autoregressive models for rank-
order change, growth models, and dual-change models) allows us to make causal inferences as well
as to test the reciprocal associations between fathering and child development. Fathering does not
simply impact children, but children impact fathers and fathering behavior as well. Finally, multilevel
modeling allows us to examine multiple levels of analysis (children within a single family; dyads and
triads) while the social relations model (Rasbash, Jenkins, O’Connor, Tackett, & Reiss, 2011) permits
a more adequate analysis of the embeddedness of fathers in the family system. These techniques
further our understanding of the complexity of the father-child relationship, how it relates to the
family system and children’s social development.
The Quality of the Father-Child Relationship
Researchers have examined how the quality of the father-child relationship impacts
children’s relationships with their peers from two perspectives. Those in the first tradition have
explored the connection between infant-father attachment and social development. The second
tradition focuses on the link between the quality of the father-child interaction, especially in play and
children’s social outcomes.
An impressive amount of research suggests that the quality of the child-mother attachment is
related to children’s later social and emotional development in preschool, middle childhood, and
even in adolescence. A secure attachment is likely to lead to better social and emotional adjustment.
Children are better liked by others, have higher self-esteem, and are more socially skilled
(Thompson, 2006). The evidence is mixed as to whether the quality of the infant’s or child’s
attachment to the father matters. While some early work suggested that the quality of infant –father
attachment is related to children’s willingness to engage an adult play partner (Main & Weston,
1981), recent work by the Grossmanns (Grossmann, Grossmann, Fremmer-Bombik, et al., 2002;
Grossman, Grossman, Kindler & Zimmermann, 2008) argue that father and mother attachment
relationships derive from different sets of early social experiences. While mothers provide emotional
security when the child is distressed, fathers “provide security through sensitive and challenging
support as a companion when the child’s exploratory system is aroused” (Grossmann et al., 2002, p.
311). In short, mothers function as distress regulators and fathers as challenging but reassuring play
partners. In support of their argument, Grossmann et al., (2002) found that fathers’ play sensitivity
and quality of infant-mother attachment predicted children’s internal working models of attachment
at age 10. Furthermore, adolescents whose fathers were more sensitive in their early play interactions
had more secure partnership representations of their current romantic partners (Grossmann et al.,
2008). Thus, their results support the assumption that fathers’ play sensitivity rather than the security
of their attachment relationship with their infants is a better predictor of the children’s long-term
attachment representations (Grossmann et al., 2008).
The impact of father-child attachment on child social competence has been further
supported by other studies. In a Belgian longitudinal study, preschool children’s positive self-image
was better predicted by child-mother attachment representations, whereas anxious/withdrawn
behavioral problems were better predicted by child-father attachment representations (Verschueren
& Marcoen, 1999). At age 9, the quality of children’s attachment representations to their fathers was
more influential in children’s peer nominations of “shy/withdrawn,” same-sex peer acceptance, and
peer sociometric status (Verschueren & Marcoen, 2005). Thus, these studies confirm that father
attachment relationships play a unique role in child social competence.
In contrast to the attachment tradition, researchers in the cognitive social learning tradition
assume that face-to-face interactions between children and fathers may afford children the
opportunity to learn social skills that are necessary for successful social relationships with peers (see
Parke & Buriel, 2006 for a fuller description). In an early study with 3 and 4-year-old children,
MacDonald and Parke (1984) found that fathers who exhibited high levels of physical play with their
children and elicited high levels of positive feelings during the play sessions had children who
received higher teacher-rated peer popularity ratings in preschool. Boys whose fathers were both
highly physical and low in directiveness received the highest popularity ratings, and the boys whose
fathers were highly directive received lower popularity scores. Girls whose teachers rated them as
popular had physically playful and feeling-eliciting but nondirective fathers and directive mothers.
Later studies confirm this general pattern. Popular children have fathers who are able to sustain
physical play for longer periods and use less directive or coercive tactics (See Parke & O’Neil, 2000;
McDowell & Parke, 2009).
Other researchers report that the style of father-child play is important as well. Hart et al.
(1998) found that greater playfulness, patience, and understanding with children, especially among
fathers, was associated with less aggressive behavior with peers among both Russian and Western
children. Flanders (Flanders, Leo, Paquette, Pihl, & Séguin, 2009; Flanders et al., 2010) emphasizes
the importance of the quality of the father child relationship as an important moderator of the links
between physical play and children’s later behavior with peers. Specifically rough-and-tumble play
was associated with more aggression but only when fathers were less dominant and only when
fathers are unable to maintain an authoritative position in the play interactions. The physical play
context is important but only when used effectively by the adult play partner to teach the child to
regulate his/her actions which means communicating to the child when he /she has exceeded the
partner's comfort zone. Low dominant, possibly permissive or uninvolved, fathers who do not set
boundaries may provide opportunities for children to learn that their excessively rough /aggressive
behavior is acceptable. In turn, this is reflected in peer-peer interactions. It is not any kind of
physical play, but modulated and regulated physical play is positively linked to social outcomes.
Mediating Processes Between Father-Child Interaction and Children’s Social Development
What child mediators link father-child interaction to child social development? Several
processes have been hypothesized as mediators, including affect management skills such as emotion
encoding and decoding, emotion regulatory abilities, cognitive representations, attributions and
beliefs, problem-solving skills, and attention-regulation abilities (Parke, McDowell, Kim & Leidy,
2006). It is assumed that these abilities or beliefs are acquired through parent-child interchanges over
the course of development and, in turn, guide the nature of children’s behavior with their peers. We
focus on three sets of processes, namely affect management skills, cognitive representational
processes, and attention-regulation skills.
Affect management and emotional regulation. It is not only the quality of emotions that fathers
display that matters to children’s social development, but also how children and fathers deal with
emotional displays. What do children learn during play with their fathers? Being able to read a play
partner’s emotional signals and to send clear emotional cues is critical for successfully maintaining
play activities. These skills allow partners to modulate their playful behavior so that neither becomes
overly aroused nor too understimulated, and play continues at an optimal level of excitement for
both (Flanders et al., 2010). Children learn to recognize others’ emotions, improve their own
emotional production skills, and regulate their emotions in the context of parent-child play
(Paquette, 2004; Parke et al., 1992). Fathers provide a unique opportunity to teach children about the
role of emotions in the context of relationships due to the wide range of intensity of affect that
father’s display and the unpredictable character of their playful exchanges with their children (Parke,
1995, 1996; Parke & Brott, 1999).
Are fathers accepting and helpful when children become distressed, angry, or sad or are they
dismissing and rejecting? Several researchers have found that fathers’ comfort and acceptance of
their children’s emotional distress is linked with more positive peer relationships. Gottman, Katz,
and Hooven (1997) found that fathers’ acceptance of and assistance with their children’s sadness
and anger at 5 years of age was related to the children’s social competence with their peers 3 years
later. Girls were less negative with friends and boys were less aggressive. Fathers who reported
emotion- and problem-focused reactions to the expression of negative emotions had children who
were described by teachers as less aggressive/disruptive (see Parke & O’Neil, 1997, for further
details and the mother’s role in this process). In addition, both parental control and affect were
related to children’s emotional regulation and coping. McDowell and Parke (2005) found that when
fathers were more controlling, their fourth-grade children exhibited less emotion regulation.
However, more paternal positive affect and less paternal negative affect were associated with more
positive coping strategies on the part of their children. Other work has found that child knowledge
of and use of display rules, a form of emotional regulation, is linked with higher levels of peer
acceptance (McDowell, & Parke, 2000; Parke et al., 2006). In sum, in the context of father-child
interaction, children learn not only the communicative value of emotions for modifying others’
behavior during social exchanges but also important lessons in emotional regulation as. These
“emotion lessons” in turn, contribute positively to children’s social development.
Cognitive representational models. One of the major problems facing the area of family-peer
relations is how children transfer the strategies that they acquire in the family context to their peer
relationships. Several theories assume that individuals possess internal mental representations that
guide their social behavior. Attachment theorists offer “working models” (Bowlby, 1969), whereas
social and cognitive psychologists have suggested scripts or cognitive maps as guides for social
action (Bugental & Grusec, 2006). Researchers within the attachment tradition have found support
for Bowlby’s argument that representations vary as a function of child-parent attachment history
(Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985). For example, children who had been securely attached infants were
more likely to represent their family in their drawings in a coherent manner, with a balance between
individuality and connection, than children who had been insecurely attached. In turn, securely
attached children have better peer relationships (Thompson, 2006).
Research in a social interactional tradition reveals links between parent and child cognitive
representations of social relationships (Burks & Parke, 1996). McDowell, Parke, and Spitzer (2002)
found that fathers’ but not mothers’ cognitive models of relationships were linked to children’s
social competence. Fathers whose strategies for dealing with interpersonal conflict dilemmas were
rated high on confrontation and instrumental qualities were associated with lower child social
competence. Children of fathers with relational goals were less often nominated as aggressive by
peers and rated more liked and less disliked by teachers. Rah and Parke (2008) found that children
who had more positive interactions with their fathers in fourth grade had fewer negative goals and
strategies for solving interpersonal problems with their fathers in fifth grade. They were less likely to
endorse negative goals and strategies in solving social dilemmas with peers, which was related to
higher peer acceptance. However, for mothers, this relation was only found among girls. Thus,
fathers seem to play a particularly important role in the links between child social information
processing and peer relationships.
Attention regulation: Attentional regulatory processes have also been viewed as an additional
mechanism through which familial socialization experiences might influence the development of
children’s social competence. These processes include the ability to attend to relevant cues, to
sustain attention, to refocus attention through such processes as cognitive distraction and cognitive
restructuring, and other efforts to purposefully reduce the level of emotional arousal in a situation
that is appraised as stressful. Attentional processes organize experience and to play a central role in
cognitive and social development beginning in early infancy (Rothbart & Bates, 2006). Thus, Wilson
(1999) considers attention-regulatory processes as a “shuttle” linking emotion regulation and social
cognitive processes because attentional processes organize both cognitions and emotions and, thus,
influence relationship competence. Using a national longitudinal study, the NICHD Early Child
Care Research Network (2009) found that both mother-child and father-child relationship quality at
54 months predicted children’s ability to sustain attention (using an independent lab based measure)
as well as ratings of attentional problems in first grade, and, in turn, mediated the links between
parenting and higher social skills ratings in first and third grade. Maternal and paternal interactions
accounted for unique variance in these outcomes. In summary, the ability to regulate attention is a
further important mediating pathway through which paternal behavior may influence children’s peer
Fathers as Advisers and Social Guides
Learning about relationships through interaction with parents can be viewed as an indirect
pathway because the goal is often not explicitly to influence children’s social relationships with
extrafamilial partners such as peers. In contrast, parents influence children’s relationships directly in
their roles as direct instructors, educators, or advisers. In this role, parents explicitly set out to
educate their children concerning the appropriate manner of initiating and maintaining social
relationships. Research suggests that young children in preschool and early elementary school gain
competence with peers when parents supervise and facilitate their experiences, whereas among older
children (middle school and beyond), greater parental supervision and guidance of children’s peer
relationships may function more as a remediatory effort (Parke & O’Neil, 2000). In a study of
parental supervision, Bhavnagri and Parke (1991) found that 2-to 5-year-old children, especially the
2- to 3-year olds, exhibited more cooperation and turn taking and had longer play bouts when
assisted by an adult than when playing without assistance.
As children develop, the forms of management shift from direct involvement or supervision
of the ongoing activities of children and their peers to a less-public form of management, involving
advice or consultation concerning appropriate ways of handling peer problems. Using a triadic
advice-giving session in which mothers, fathers, and their third grader discussed how to handle peer
interaction problems, Wang and McDowell (1996) found that parental style of interaction appeared
to be a better predictor of children’s social competence than the actual solution quality generated in
the advice-giving session. Specifically, fathers’ controlling style and the warmth and mothers’
support during the advice-giving task were significant predictors of children’s social competence. In
a recent longitudinal study, McDowell and Parke (2009) found that the parent advice giving of both
mothers and fathers predicted children’s social competence, and, in turn, social acceptance 1 year
later. Since the model was tested with both mothers and fathers and both were related to child
outcomes, this underscores the important role that fathers as well as mothers play in their children’s
The direction of effects in each of these studies, of course, is difficult to determine. Under
some circumstances, parents may be providing advice in response to children’s social difficulties (see
also Ladd & Golter, 1988; Mize, Pettit, & Brown, 1995). Highly involved parents, for example, may
simply be responding to their children’s poor social abilities. Nevertheless, the bulk of evidence
suggests that direct parental influence in the form of supervision and advice giving can significantly
increase the interactive competence of young children and illustrates the utility of examining direct
parent strategies as a way of teaching children about social relationships.
Fathers as Monitors and Sources of Social Opportunities
Both fathers and mothers play an important role in the facilitation of their children’s peer
relationships by initiating informal contact between their own children and potential play partners,
especially among young children (Reich & Vandell, 2011). Ladd and Golter (1988) found that
children of parents who arranged peer contacts had a larger range of playmates and more frequent
play companions outside of school than children of parents who were less active in initiating peer
contacts. When children entered kindergarten, boys, but not girls, with parents who initiated peer
contacts were better liked and less rejected by their classmates than boys with non-initiating parents.
Parents also influence their children’s social relations by providing them with the
opportunity to participate in more formal afterschool activities such as team sports, Brownies, and
Cub Scouts. Participating in these institutions allow children access to a wider range of activities
than more informal play situations and can contribute to their social and cognitive development.
Although some studies have found that mothers are more involved in the interface between the
children and social institutions and view these settings as being more important for children’s
development of social skills than do fathers (Bhavnagri & Parke, 1991), few studies have investigated
father’s participation in formal afterschool activities with their children. McDowell and Parke (2009)
found that both mothers’ and fathers’ provision of opportunities for their fourth grade child was
related to higher levels of positive social competence in fifth grade. However, little is known about
the specific nature of father involvement. Since many fathers may serve as coaches of their
children’s sports team or lead their scout groups, future research should examine the effects of these
interactions on their children’s social development. Involvement in religious institutions is another
way that fathers and mothers can provide their children with opportunities to gain positive
experience with peers. Adolescents who were involved in church activities in 8th grade had better
peer relationships in 12th grade (Elder & Conger, 2000).
Another way fathers can affect their children’s social relationships is through monitoring
their children’s social activities, especially as children move into preadolescence and adolescent
which marks a relative shift in importance of family and peers as sources of influence on social
relationships. Monitoring refers to a range of activities including the supervision of children and
choice of social settings, activities, and friends. Poorly monitored children have lower academic
skills, lower peer acceptance (Sandstrom & Cole, 1999), higher school truancy rates and substance
abuse (Furstenberg et al. (1999), higher rates of delinquent and externalizing behavior (Hair et al.,
2008; Xiaoming, Stanton, & Feigelman, 2000), and associate more with deviant peers (Knoester,
Haynie, & Stephens, 2006).
It is important to underscore that these three influence pathways do not operate
independently. As McDowell & Parke (2009) found father–child interaction, paternal advice giving,
and provision of opportunities together provided better prediction of social competence than any of
these paternal socialization strategies examined singly.
The Marital Dyad as a Contributor to Children’s Social Development
Another way in which fathers influence their children’s peer relationships is through their
marital relationships (Parke et al., 2001). Two perspectives, specifically the direct and indirect effects
models, have been offered to explain the possible links between marital relationships and children’s
According to the direct effect model, exposure to marital conflict may directly alter
children’s capacity to function effectively in other social contexts (Cummings & Davies, 2010).
These direct effects seem to be mediated by two sets of intervening processes: 1) children’s
perceptions of conflict, and 2) emotional regulation (for a review of these theoretical arguments see
Parke et al., 2001). Katz and Gottman (1993) found that couples who exhibited a hostile style of
resolving conflict had children who tended to be described by teachers as exhibiting antisocial
characteristics. When husbands were angry and emotionally distant while resolving marital conflict,
children were described by teachers as anxious and socially withdrawn. Furthermore, O’Neil, Flyr,
Wild, and Parke (1999) found that more negative paternal problem-solving strategies were associated
with greater peer-rated avoidance and lower teacher-rated acceptance. In another study, Kim, Parke,
and O’Neil (1999) found that frequent parental conflict was associated with teacher ratings of shy
behavior and sadness, and child self-blame was associated with peer ratings of dislike, verbal and
physical aggression, and peer and teacher ratings of externalizing behaviors. In addition, adolescents
whose parents fought frequently were less likely to be accepted by their peers, had fewer friends, and
expressed negative qualities in their best friendships (Vairami &Vorria, 2007). Research has indicated
the differential impact of mother and father marital processes and child outcomes. Cummings,
Goeke-Morey, Papp, and Dukewich (2002) found that mothers’ reported increased negative
emotionality (comprised of anger, sadness, and fear), in children as a response to destructive
behavior by their fathers. Furthermore, both fathers’ and mothers’ reports of fathers’ negative
emotionality, predicted child anger, sadness, and fear as well as decreased levels of positive
emotionality in children. Crockenberg and Langrock (2001) found that fathers’ marital aggression
predicted boys’ and girls’ externalizing problems even after controlling for parenting factors.
The indirect effect model proposes that marital relationships alter parent-child relationships,
and consequently affect child outcomes (Fauber & Long, 1991). Poor parenting and poor marriages
often go together, and some father effects are best understood by recognizing this link between
parenting and marriage. Gottman and Katz (1989) found that a poor parenting style, characterized as
cold, unresponsive, angry, and low in limit setting and structuring, was linked to higher levels of
anger and noncompliance on the part of 5-year-old children when interacting with their parents,
which, in turn, led to poor peer outcomes. Children from these homes had lower levels of positive
play with peers, more negative peer exchanges, and poorer physical health. Further support for the
indirect model comes from a study by Stocker and Youngblade (1999) who found that paternal, but
not maternal, hostility served as the mediator between marital conflict and problematic peer
relationships. Finally, family systems theory suggests that marital discord not only adversely affects
mother-child and father-child relationships but also impairs qualities of the triadic mother-father-
child relationships by reducing the effectiveness of how well mothers and fathers work together with
their child (for more information on co-parenting, see chapter by Palkovitz, Fagan, & Hull, this
Cultural Considerations in the Father-Child Relationship
The relative impact of parents and peers in different cultures and the nature of the family-
peer linkages may differ across and within cultures (Chen & French, 2008). While relatively few
studies have examined this relation, numerous studies have reported that parental and peer
correlates of child social competence are similar. Family relationships, such as parent-child conflict,
parental warmth, and parental monitoring, and peer approval/disapproval of misconduct were
related to child misconduct similarly across European, Chinese American, and Chinese subgroups
(Chen et al., 1998). In a Chinese, Chen and Rubin (1994) found that authoritarian parenting and
punitive disciplinary practices were linked with childhood aggression and peer rejection, while
parental warmth and authoritative parenting predicted social competence, which then predicted peer
acceptance. Recently, Leidy et al. (2011) found that father acceptance, monitoring, consistent
discipline, and interactions with his child were positively associated with positive child adjustment,
while father rejection was negatively associated with positive child adjustment. These findings were
found across both Mexican American and European American step and intact families while
controlling for SES, child gender, marital quality, and mothers’ parenting behaviors, suggesting that
fathering is associated with child adjustment regardless of family type in both ethnic groups.
It is crucial to extend our examination of father-peer relationships and especially the
mediating processes to a wider range of cultures. For example, we argued that emotion-regulatory
skills are acquired, in part, in the context of father-child physical play and are mediating processes
between fathers and social competence. However, evidence from Chinese Malaysia, Taiwan,
Thailand, Sweden and India has suggested that fathers and mothers rarely engage in physical play
with their children (Lamb, 1997; Sun & Roopnarine, 1996). These cross-cultural variations alert us to
the possibilities that other mediators may be involved for non-Western cultures or that emotion-
regulatory and other aspects of emotional competence may be learned in nonphysical play contexts
or in interaction with other socialization agents.
In terms of parental management, similarities and differences across cultures are evident as
well (Hart et al., 1998). In Russia, China, and the United States, mothers who initiated more peer
contacts had children who were more accepted by peers. However, Chinese children were given
more autonomy in their initiating activities with peers. Mothers in all cultures were more likely to
arrange peer contacts if their children were perceived by teachers as less socially competent. Parental
monitoring has similar positive effects on children’s misconduct in a variety of cultures, including
Denmark (Arnett & Belle-Jensen, 1993), China (Chen et al., 1998), and Australia (Feldman,
Rosenthal, Mont-Reynaud, & Leung, 1991). Across a variety of cultures, the relative influence of
families and peers on children’s social behavior may differ, but the family processes by which these
socialization agents achieve their influence are similar.
Bridges to other Disciplines
The study of fatherhood has become a fully realized interdisciplinary enterprise with scholars
from numerous disciplines actively engaged in fathering research. In part, this broadening of
disciplinary interest is due to the reconceptualization of fathering not solely as an interactive parent
child enterprise but as a fully contextualized inquiry in which fathers are viewed as members of a
larger set of social systems. Fathers are part of family systems which, in turn, requires that the
mother-father marital relationships be recognized as well as fathers multiple and distinctive
relationships with the full set of siblings in the family (Cummings & Davies, 2010). Fathers are part
of biological systems just as mothers are, which has led to the assessment of hormonal related
changes in men across the transition to fatherhood (Storey et al., 2000). As sociologists have shown,
fathering is influenced by extra-familial contexts such as work, neighborhood, and social class
(Coltrane, 2007; Guzzo & Furstenburg, 2007). In turn, fathers’ links with the legal and medical
establishments has enticed legal and medical scholars to join the effort to understand fathering
(Maccoby & Mnookin, 1998; Pruett, 2000). And not all fathers function adequately; some are
depressed, others are violent while some are uninvolved. This has led psychiatrists, social workers,
clinical psychologists and educators to become involved in this inquiry as well (Bender et al., 2007;
Cowan et al., 2009). Finally historians (Pleck, 2004) have provided a glimpse at fathering in earlier
times while demographers (Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2008) are helping us track changes
over time and aid in our policy planning for the future. It is fully recognized that the study of
fatherhood is too important and too diverse to be left in the hands of a single discipline, and that
these multiple disciplines will further our understanding of how fathers impact child social
While there are many unanswered questions as to how fathers impact child social competence,
there is evidence that fathers do affect children’s relationships with peers. Thus policies should take
into account the important role that both mothers and fathers play in child social competence. In an
age with increased school violence, shootings, and gangs, it is especially important to take a family
systems perspective in developing and evaluating the effectiveness of interventions aimed at
increasing peer competence, decreasing youth violence, and promoting positive youth development
in children. Furthermore, ways of involving and engaging fathers in schools and extracurricular
activities may have positive benefits for children’s peer relationships. Recognizing the importance of
the mother-father relationship, specially the marital relationship, should be recognized when trying
to improve the quality of the father-child relationship. Family systems interventions and community-
based resources should encourage father involvement in recognition of the vital role of fathers in
children’s social development.
While there have been shifts in the extent to which fathers are active caregivers and
participants in the lives of their children (Parke & Brott, 1999; Pleck, 2010), less is known about how
these shifts, in turn, alter children’s social competence. Men are becoming fathers at later ages and
many men are re-experiencing fatherhood in middle or old age as a result of divorce and remarriage.
The impact of the shift in timing in the onset of first-time or repeated fatherhood on their
interaction patterns with their children, and consequently, on their children’s social development
Another poorly understood issue concerns the unique contributions of fathers to children’s
social development. Although fathers’ physical play style has been suggested as a unique way in
which fathers influence their children’s social adaptation, this is clearly not the only way in which
fathers influence their children’s social outcomes. In light of the cross-cultural evidence that physical
play is not a universal feature of the father-child interactive style, more detailed examination of the
alternative pathways through which children learn emotional competence that are important for
successful peer relationships is warranted. Moreover, the relative importance of fathers as interactive
agents, advisers, or managers of social opportunities is not clearly understood (McDowell & Parke,
2009). It is clear that more effort needs to be devoted to partialing out the relative contributions to
different aspects of the fathers’ roles as well as differences across mother and father roles. We need
to explore the possibility of a typology of fatherhood in which different types of fathers devote
various amounts of their socialization effort to each of the three pathways. We do not currently
know the effects of different combinations of paternal socialization investment strategies on
children’s peer outcomes. Different combinations may produce different but equally socially
Finally, the direction of effects continues to be an unresolved issue. Although it is implicitly
assumed that fathers are influencing their children’s peer relationships, the correlational and often
cross-sectional nature of the majority of studies suggest that the direction of causality may flow from
child to parent as well. A transactional model (Sameroff, 2009) in which fathers and children
mutually influence each other across time will prove most useful for guiding research in this area. A
related issue concerns the question of how the peer system influences fathers and families and vice-
versa. Both positive and negative effects need to be better understood.
Although it is common to assume that fathers are essential to the successful socialization of
children, recent evidence concerning the impact of gay and lesbian parents on children’s
development challenges this basic assumption. Recent work suggests that the development of
children raised by lesbian parents is well within normal limits (Golombok, 2006; Patterson, 2006).
Although research on the effects of being reared by two male parents is even more limited than the
work on two female parents, the available data suggest that the gender identities of children of gay
fathers are similar to those of children of heterosexual fathers (Patterson, 2006). One important
challenge faced by children of gay and lesbian parents, however, is their possible stigmatization by
others. An issue that requires concerted attention in this debate is the role of social norms and
attitudes toward children growing up in same-gender child-rearing unions. This may have
particularly important implications for children’s social competence with peers.
Furthermore, if children reared in homes with two parents of the same gender are developing
well, it raises the question about the necessity of fathers or mothers in the socialization mix. As
Silverstein (2002) suggests, our focus on the gender of the parent may be too narrow a
conceptualization of the issue. Instead, it may be helpful to recast the issue to ask whether exposure
to male and female parents is the key, or whether it is exposure to the interactive style typically
associated with either mothers or fathers that matters. At the same time, is seems premature to
conclude that fathers or mothers are replaceable based on this evidence. Studies have relied largely
on small samples of highly educated individuals in stable relationships. In addition, two key issues
need to be addressed in ongoing work. More needs to be understood about the extent to which role
division in lesbian or gay families approximates role division in heterosexual families, and more
needs to be understood about the degree to which same-gender couples expose their children to
opposite-sex role models. Many challenges remain.
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