WASHINGTON — Stepfathers make slightly better parents than married biological fathers, researchers found in a new study of at-risk urban families.
Mothers reported that stepfathers were more engaged, more cooperative and shared more responsibility than their biological counterparts did, according to the study, published in this month's issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Lawrence Berger, the study's lead author, cautioned that the findings applied only to "fragile families," defined as low-income urban families prone to nonmarital births.
The findings contradict a popular view among social workers and family policy experts that biological fathers invest more in their own flesh and blood.
"I think this research does, to some extent, call some of those assumptions into question," said Rebekah Levine Coley, a developmental psychologist at Boston College.
"It certainly shows that stepfathers or even unmarried social fathers can be quite productive in rearing children," she said.
The study found little difference in how engaged stepfathers were in playing with their children compared with married biological fathers. Mothers also trusted stepfathers and married biological fathers equally when it came to caring for the mothers' offspring when they were away.
The biggest difference between stepfathers and married biological fathers was that stepfathers were more cooperative with mothers, Berger said.
Mothers interviewed weren't comparing their current partners with their exes, he noted. Rather, they described the parenting skills of their present husbands, and the appraisals of those who were wed to biological fathers were compared with those who were wed to their children's stepfathers.
Mothers reported that stepfathers shared their parenting views and talked to them more about their parental wants than natural fathers did, said Berger, an assistant professor at the social work school of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"(Stepfathers) have to work harder to fit in and to have a useful productive role," Coley said.
The study theorized that men who married women with children might have a greater interest in parenting. Married biological fathers might gravitate toward more traditional roles such as breadwinning, it speculated.
The study also looked at biological fathers who hadn't married and at
"cohabiting social fathers." It found that mothers trusted unmarried biological fathers more than cohabiting social fathers to care for their children. But cohabiting social fathers were more cooperative with mothers when it came to parenting.
The findings were drawn from 2,098 interviews with urban mothers from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study. The children, born from 1998 to 2000, were 5 years old at the time of the last interviews.
ON THE WEB