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Daddy data: Conference focuses on new trends in fatherhood

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The American pater familias has come a long way from "Father Knows Best" to deadbeat dad, house hubby and "main squeeze." To find out just how far, scholars tracking the movements of the elusive modern sire and his manifold forms convened for a two-day conference on trends in fatherhood, Sept. 21-22, at Cornell.

Specialists from a variety of disciplinary perspectives devoted six sessions to current research on fatherhood and what that role means for men and families. Topics included fatherhood education programs in prison, the role of step-fathers in supporting the relationship between a biological father and his children, hormonal responses to becoming a father, how many fathers take paternity leave after their children are born, the ways in which fathers are involved with their children and the impact on child development. The sessions were well attended, drawing audiences as diverse as the speakers themselves.

Session one explored the transition to fatherhood; sessions two and three were devoted to what fathers do and provide for their children and families, and the impacts of those behaviors on childhood development. Session four examined how fatherhood affects men from a cultural, economic and biological perspective. Other sessions addressed two important policy issues: What programs are effective for incarcerated fathers and their families; and what programs effectively facilitate fathering among nonresidential fathers. The conference concluded with a session that discussed the future of fathers and the family.

Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland, for example, presented new research in her co-authored paper on residential fathers' involvement with early adolescent children. Among Hofferth's findings, based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth:

Jacinta Bronte-Tinkew from the nonprofit agency Child Trends presented new findings, also based on a longitudinal study, in her co-authored paper on the extent to which fathers' prenatal behaviors correspond to their involvement with infants. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort, it came as no surprise that men who did not want a pregnancy were less nurturing to children than those who longed to be fathers. More subtle findings in the study revealed that men's care-giving activities following childbirth were stronger for male than female children. On the whole, Bronte-Tinkew's presentation seemed to advocate for programs that encourage fathers' active participation prior to birth because it influences the well-being of children.

The Hofferth and Bronte-Tinkew studies were based largely on data on at-home fathers.

In a departure from her colleagues' work, Cornell's Maureen Waller's novel presentation on at-home fathers drew from in-depth interviews with 62 new mothers and fathers of low-income status in Oakland, Calif., when their children were ages 1 and 4. Waller, assistant professor in policy analysis and management, modified a model used for stable middle-class families to address her subjects, including absent fathers.

Among her findings was some good news for family policy-makers.

"Some fathers who aren't formally recognized as caretakers appear to be highly involved as early child-care providers," Waller said. "Others appeared flexible enough to move into caretaking roles when the mother starts experiencing some challenges in her life."

University of Chicago's Waldo E. Johnson Jr. responded to the papers. Among several observations, Johnson called for more information on the role of absent and nontraditional fathers and a need for more information on the role depression plays in fatherhood, which is hard to track.

The fatherhood conference was the last major public event of the Evolving Family Theme Project, which is one of three initiatives under way at Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences. Each three-year theme project focuses on an interdisciplinary research topic, with faculty from Cornell and other leading academic institutions participating in the research and working in-residence at the institute with other participating faculty.

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Franklin Crawford