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Stepdads Better than Dads? Not So Fast

September 1, 2008

"Stepdads beat biological fathers in parenting, study says." "Stepdads do better than real dads in 'fragile' families." "Stepfathers make better parents." This is how dozens of major newspapers and media outlets are reporting a new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family which compares stepfathers to biological fathers.

Conventional wisdom says that biological fathers are more committed to their children than stepfathers are to their stepchildren. While media accounts of the study claim that research contradicts this wisdom, a closer look at the study shows that this simply isn't true. Moreover, the study's misconstrued findings could have a harmful impact on family law and child custody cases.

For one, the researchers did not study fathers as a whole, but only a limited cohort--"fragile families," defined as "low-income urban families prone to nonmarital births." Also, fathers were not studied independently-all assessments of them were based entirely on the children's mothers' reports.

Moreover, the study did not find that stepdads were generally superior to biological dads. What researchers found was that stepfathers were more "cooperative" with mothers than biological fathers. To say this makes stepdads "better" than biological fathers is questionable, to say the least.

"Cooperation" with mothers can be a great thing. It can also mean nothing more than things are being done mom's way. This is no surprise-stepfathers have a much more tentative, fragile role in children's lives than biological fathers. It follows that they would generally be more "cooperative."

Conflict over parenting methods and strategies within couples is often a positive for children, not a negative. Having two different, competing viewpoints weeds out bad ideas and helps preserve good ones. One reason why children in single parent homes don't do as well as children who live with both parents is that in single parent homes ideas and parenting strategies are implemented without consultation.

Numerous studies document maternal gate-keeping--mothers' belief that their parenting style should be shared and followed by the children's father. Psychologist Ron Taffel says that when fathers feel "supervised and judged" by mothers, they tend to back away from their children. Yet fathers' styles are just as important for children as mothers.' When dad feels he can only do it mom's way-as is more common with stepfathers than with biological fathers-children miss out on valuable male parenting.

Another of the study's limitations is that researchers studied families where the children were only five-years-old. This greatly skews the data in favor of stepdads.

In each one of these cases, the mothers endured a fairly recent breakup with their children's biological father. Most feel disappointed or hurt or angry with them. Many have been or still are in the middle of contentious battles over child custody and child support.

Into this hurt and disappointment comes stepdad. After mom and dad split, mom thought she was going to have to raise the kids herself-she is understandably grateful for stepdad's unexpected help. Moreover, the relationship is newer and happier.

By contrast, mothers married to their children's biological fathers have higher expectations of them, and thus are more likely to be disappointed in their spouses, or to find them less cooperative or helpful than they had expected.

It is not surprising that grateful mothers gave stepdads positive marks-what's surprising is that the study's results don't lean even more towards stepdads.

The dad vs. stepdad debate is no mere academic question, but instead an issue which has serious ramifications in family law. Advocates of sole or primary custody for mothers often insist that children do fine with "father-figures" instead of their fathers. For example, on the hotly-debated relocation/move-away issue in family law, they claim there should be no obstacles to custodial mothers who wish to relocate children to other states. After all, the kids may miss dad, but they'll still have mom and the "father figure" that mom provides.

In family court, judges have wide powers to fashion custody arrangements that are in "the best interests of the child." This study-or at least the media reports of it-will be used to mislead courts into believing that biological fathers are easily replaceable, and are not central to children's best interests.

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Copyright ©2008 Mike McCormick and Glenn Sacks