Keeping Contact with Children: Assessing the Father/Child Post-separation Relationship from the Male Perspective

SUMMARY

This report presents the findings of a research project undertaken during the winter of 1999-2000 for the Child Support Team of the Department of Justice Canada. The authors were requested to analyze variations in the frequency of father/child contact following parental separation using data from the General Social Survey (GSS) (cycle 10) of the Family, carried out in 1995 by Statistics Canada. For the first time in Canada, this survey collected information not only from separated mothers but also from fathers. Separated parents replied to questions concerning the amount of time each of their children had spent with them, and with their other parent, during the year preceding the survey. This information made it possible to adopt a father- rather than a mother-centred approach, and to take into consideration men's attitudes towards, and perceptions of, their parental role.

This report includes:

  • A profile of separated fathers according to the frequency of contact with their children.
  • A comparison of statements made by separated mothers and fathers regarding their expectations for their children's care (type of custody, frequency of contact, child support).
  • An analysis of the factors likely to increase the amount of contact between fathers and children.

PRINCIPAL RESULTS

According to reports by fathers, the amount of time children of separated parents spend with their father is highly variable.

Almost one-third of children reported by fathers had very frequent contact with their father--spending at least five months with him during the twelve months preceding the survey. At the other extreme, almost a quarter of children had very little contact with him (less than seven days), and one child out of six had no contact at all. In reality, the picture is more sombre than that painted here, given the under-representation of fathers in the sample contacted by the 1995 GSS who had little or no contact with their children.

Communicating by letter or telephone does not act as a substitute for visits by fathers who live far from their children.

The more often men see their children, the more they are likely to contact them frequently by letter or telephone. Moreover, the majority of fathers who communicate regularly by letter or telephone live relatively close to their children.

The conjugal and parental life course of the majority of separated fathers does not stop at the relationship within which the child was born.

After separating from their child's mother, more than half the fathers had formed a new union by the time of the survey; around one father in eight had lived with the children of a new partner, and a similar proportion had fathered children within a new union.

Separated fathers behave in much the same way with each of their children, once the characteristics of these children have been controlled for.

The multi-level regression analysis showed that most of the observed variation in the number of days that fathers spend with children comes from differences between the fathers, indicating that differences between children of the same father are relatively small.

The age of the child when his/her parents separate has a strong influence on the amount of father/child contact.

Overall, the older the children at the time of the parents' separation, the more frequent the contact with the father at the time of the survey. More precisely, the number of days that children spent with their father increased as the child's age at separation rose, up to the age of 5.5 years; subsequently, the number of days remained relatively stable until the age of 10 years, at which point it started to rise again sharply.

The greater the distance between the homes of the separated parents, the smaller the amount of time fathers and children spend together.

Children living 50 kilometres or more from their father's home spend much less time with their father than those living less than 10 kilometres away.

Fathers in part-time employment spend considerably less time with their children than those in regular full-time work.

This finding probably reflects the fact that men who have regular daytime work have fixed schedules that may correspond more closely to those of children than do the more irregular schedules of part-time workers, and that these men have higher incomes, which are associated with more frequent father/child contact. From this result, it appears that some fathers whose income prevents them from fulfilling their financial obligations prefer to break off contact with their children rather than continue to be in a situation they find too difficult.

Fathers who hold positive attitudes about fatherhood spend more time with their children.

Fathers who consider that having a child made them happier, and who claim to be satisfied with custody arrangements and with the time they spend with their children, are also those who spend the most time with them. These results present an image of involved fathers that contrasts with the one often touted by the media, that of absent fathers losing interest in their children.

CONCLUSION

Fathers' propensity to fulfill their financial obligations towards their children after separation is closely linked to the amount of contact they have with them. Determining the factors likely to increase the frequency of father/child contact is therefore crucial to the process of reducing the risk of poverty to which children of separated parents are exposed. The present analysis of 1995 GSS data constitutes a first step in this direction, but more sophisticated analyses are essential if we hope to better understand the process set in motion by separation.

First, research on this question should take a longitudinal approach, following the same individuals through different stages of their lives. Only data of this type would enable us to disentangle the cohort effect from that caused by the simple passage of time in the results of the present study. The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), which tracks a large sample of Canadian children through childhood, could be used to clarify how father/child contact evolves following parental separation. However, as very few fathers replied to the NLSCY questionnaire, this survey will not make it possible to broach the question of father/child contact directly from the male point of view. In this respect, the 2001 GSS has strong research potential. First, the majority of difficulties experienced in this study (such as the problem with the pathways followed by the questionnaire) should be ironed out by the next survey. In addition, the sample is significantly larger than in 1995, and should therefore permit more detailed analyses than those carried out here. Moreover, given the increase in the number of children experiencing the breakdown of their parents' union, the proportion of male respondents who are separated from the mother of their children should be higher than in the past.

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