It is important to understand what factors could be impacting children in single-mother homes, and what could be done to improve the health of these children.
To date, there has been little research into the impact of a nonresident father's engagement with the child. The few studies that have been carried out have reached contradictory conclusions.
For instance, one study found that higher levels of fatherly input increased the risk of adolescent obesity, while another (carried out by the same researchers) found more healthful eating habits with increased input from the father.
The challenge of studying families
Family interactions are an incredibly difficult thing to study; cause and effect are almost impossible to tease apart.
For instance, if a child has poor health, the father may decide to be more engaged. Or, perhaps, a child's poor health might be a reason for the father to withdraw further. Or maybe, a child's poor health may encourage the mother to keep them away from a nonresident father.
Another difficulty is that self-reports of how much time a father spends with a child can easily be over- or underestimated, depending on how the mother feels about the father's engagement.
For instance, mothers who would like the father to be more engaged than he is may underestimate how much time he spends with his child, and vice versa.
Despite these inherent difficulties and complexities, researchers at Binghamton University in New York recently set out to investigate these interactions from an unusual starting point.
Their results are published in the Journal of Health Economics.
She looks like you
The team wanted to understand whether facial similarities between father and child might influence paternal engagement and the health of the child. To look at this intriguing question, they took data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, which focused on more than 700 families "in which babies live with only their mother."
To assess the babies' health, a range of parameters — such as the number of asthma episodes, the number of healthcare and emergency room visits, and the child's longest stay in hospital — were measured.
The researchers found that babies who looked more like their father were healthier at the age of 1.
Why is this? The researchers delved into the data and found that fathers whose offspring looked like them spent more time with the child — an average of 2.5 days extra each month.
"We find a child's health indicators improve when the child looks like the father... The main explanation is that frequent father visits allow for greater parental time for care-giving and supervision, and for information gathering about child health and economic needs."
Dr. Solomon Polachek, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics, University of Binghamton
"It's been said that 'it takes a village,' but my co-author, Marlon Tracey, and I find that having an involved father certainly helps," he adds.
But why might a father spend more time with a child that looks like them? One theory, as laid out by Dr. Polachek, is that "[t]hose fathers that perceive the baby's resemblance to them are more certain the baby is theirs, and thus spend more time with the baby."
The study authors conclude that, if fatherly input has such a significant impact on the health of the child, policy should be shaped to help increase the level of contact.
Dr. Polachek explains, "Greater efforts could be made to encourage these fathers to frequently engage their children through parenting classes, health education, and job training to enhance earnings."
However, the study does have some limitations. For example, whether a child looks like their father was ascertained by asking the mother and father which parent the child looked like. If both parents thought that the baby looked like the father, then the baby was considered to look like their father.
There is the possibility that a father who is more likely to be engaged from the beginning might see similarities that do not, in reality, exist. In the same way, a mother who is keen for the baby to have regular contact with their father might perceive more of a resemblance.
Although the results make interesting reading, more work will now need to be done to firm up the researchers' conclusions. This is a complicated issue and not without controversy.