Saturday, August 09, 2008

On Dads and Stepdads

News articles in papers around the country report that a study of low-income urban families appearing in the Journal of Marriage and Children finds that stepfathers make better parents than biological dads. According to this article appearing in the Dallas Morning News, "The findings contradict a popular view among social workers and family policy experts that biological fathers invest more in their own flesh and blood."

That may be, but an obvious weakness of the study jumps out at this reader. If the accounts of the study are to be believed (I have not read the actual study, which can be purchased here), the research relied heavily on self-reporting by the mothers, who would be more likely to answer questions in a way that would be favorable toward their current husbands than toward the blankety-blank ex-husband/boyfriend/sperm donor, or whatever. How the study dealt with that potential bias is not explained in the reporting.

The report in the DMN also omitted a significant finding in the study. According to this more detailed summary, there was a qualitative distinction between married stepfathers and unmarried, cohabitating stepfathers. The study found that the former made for better parents of the mother's children than the latter. As the abstract of the study states, "Additionally, difference-in-difference analyses reveal a stronger link between marriage and higher quality parenting practices among social fathers than among biological fathers."

This difference does not appear in the newspaper accounts.

There are good biological fathers and bad ones. Good step dads and bad. One suspects that on balance, in spite of this study, that the biological fathers (especially if you exclude those who were never a part of a common household with the child in the first place) would make for the more attentive dads.

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