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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Social Fathers=Higher Injury Rate for Children

“Unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for children age 1 and older in the United States and is responsible for more child mortality than all diseases combined,” report the authors of a new study. The researchers, both from Rutgers, highlight that many other scholars have already focused on the role mothers play in the risk of such unintentional injury, but few have focused on the role of fathers. And in a world in which fewer and fewer children live with both biological parents, the authors examine the role that the type of parenthood (biological, social, residential, etc.) plays in children’s risk of unintentional injury.

In setting up the parameters, the researchers focus on three measurements of father involvement (for both biological fathers and “social fathers,” defined as “mothers’ new married or cohabiting partners”): fathers’ residential status, father’s engagement with children in age-appropriate developmental activities, and levels of reported cooperative parenting. The researchers pulled their data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, controlling for a multitude of “sociodemographic and parent and child health and health behaviors that may be associated with father involvement and childhood injury.” 

The results were clear. “In the pooled model,” report the researchers, “compared to children living with their mother and biological father, children living with a social father or with no resident father had 31% and 21% greater odds, respectively, of having a reported injury.” They do elaborate, however, that after controlling for “sociodemographics, mothers’ health and health behaviors, fathers’ characteristics, and fathers’ residential stability, the magnitude of the associations was substantially reduced, and neither coefficient remained statistically significant.” The risk of injury also varied markedly by age—one-year-old children were more than twice as likely (OR=2.11) to be injured in a home with a social father than they were in a home with both biological parents.

The researchers also found that social fathers’ more frequent engagement with children actually increased children’s risk of injury by 21%, while more frequent engagement by biological fathers had no such effect on injury risk. As can be expected, fathers whose significant others reported high levels of cooperative parenting, “characterized as the ability of fathers to support mothers in parenting and to share childrearing responsibilities,” had a decreased risk of child injury, although that decreased risk was actually higher for resident social fathers than for resident biological fathers. (The researchers, however, point out that although the “magnitude of the associations” between levels of cooperative parenting and reduced childhood injury risk are strong for social fathers, “they are not statistically significant, probably because of smaller sample sizes of children with resident social fathers.”)

In spite of the diminishing effect of a variety of controls, the researchers believe that their study’s results demonstrate the need for “parent training and outreach efforts” targeted to resident social fathers. One suspects that such weak remedies will, as usual, make little difference.

(Lenna Nepomnyaschy and Louis Donnelly, “Father Involvement and Childhood Injuries,” Journal of Marriage and Family 77 [June 2015]: 628-46. DOI: 10.1111/jomp.12192)