A retrospective review of the division of parenting labor between mothers and fathers has been released by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (Brisbane University in the UK). This study is already being misinterpreted in the British press as evidence that mothers are better parents than fathers (for boys only).
The study reviews data gathered from the mothers of 6010 children in Avon (UK) who lived with both of their parents for up to the first 4 years of life. The mothers completed a series of questionnaires that were fed into a database, and then the data were tortured, er analyzed, for correlations between the number of hours the children spent in the sole care of their fathers and the children's cognitive and/or social skills at 47 months, prior to school entry, and at age 7.
Despite the horrendous media pronouncements, here is what I read when I examined the actual study:
- These children were presumed to be cared for by their mothers as the primary parent. These were not equally shared children, nor were they cared for by stay-at-home fathers. In fact, the vast majority of the mothers either didn't work (28-39%) or worked only part-time (37-47%). It was 'assumed' that all the fathers worked full-time or were out-of-work (not by choice). So, the fathers were in a supporting role only.
- Assessment of children's skills at 47 months was only available for about half of the children (3121), not the full 6010.
- Lots of good news was revealed (that the media do not give any attention to): 1) fathers' care seems to enhance the social skills of children; 2) fathers' care seems to make no difference to the cognitive skills of girls; 3) fathers' care seems to make no difference to the cognitive skills of boys except for one subset - boys who receive a high degree (meaning more than 15 hours per week) of sole father care when they are 2-3 years old and who do not receive any other type of outside care. This difference was not seen when these boys were measured at the time of school entry or at age 7. Father care made no cognitive difference to any other subset of boys.
- One more piece of really good news is that there was no difference seen between fathering and mothering for children in the first year of life - the time when you might expect a difference to happen (with the breastfeeding and mother-bonding issues at play).
- The data come from children born in 1991-2. So, a LONG time ago in the world of equal parenting.
- The cognitive impairment difference amounted to 1/5th of a standard deviation.
Oh, and although the researchers say this is not a factor, the children who received the most father care were those whose fathers were out-of-work (meaning not by choice), and were in the worst socio-economic brackets. Hmmm....
What we have here is a study using old data from families where the primary parent is the mother, using surveys completed by the mothers to conclude that it may not be ideal to allow fathers to care for their own children for 15 or more hours per week in the 2nd and 3rd years of their children's lives...but that this little problem applies only to boys, applies to cognitive ability but not to social skills, may not be practically significant, and goes away when those boys reach school age anyway.
I'm underwhelmed. In the face of tremendous and mounting evidence that father involvement improves socialization and verbal skills. Alas, the media is trying to paint the news of this study as a mark against stay-at-home dads (who are not even studied in the data). The media don't know enough to go after us equal sharers, but the study is also clearly not about us either.
What does this study tell us? I'm having a hard time answering that. Right now, I'm inclined to agree with the old saying that if you torture the data long enough, it will speak. But it won't help you figure out the truth.
Find your own truth.
p.s. Hat tip to Rebeldad for earlier coverage of this news.