Moving On: The Expansion of the Family Network After Parents Separate

2004-FCY-9E

II   MY FATHER AND I

The previous section showed how new patterns of conjugal and parental behaviour have modified the family trajectories of children born towards the end of the twentieth century. Fewer of today's children are born into the first family of married parents and remain within this family unit until leaving home and starting their own family. The pathway through childhood has become more complex and diverse as a result of the widely divergent avenues parents follow through family life.

Many studies have attempted to evaluate whether and how children are affected by these unpredictable life courses; most use developmental indicators created by psychologists and based on objective measures of children's behaviour, such as hyperactivity, aggression, social skills and school performance.

Very rarely do we hear from the children themselves—on how they feel about their relationships with parents and how these feelings may be affected by family life course events, such as separation or parents' new unions. Their father's image, in particular, may be affected by the volatility of family life. With parental responsibilities most often allocated to the mother, the father‑child relationship is vulnerable in the post-separation settlement.

This ignorance of the child's point of view stems principally from the scarcity of data. The NLSCY goes some way towards filling the gap, with one section of the questionnaire, completed by the children themselves. Children aged 10 years and above were asked a number of questions about the quality of their relationship with their mother and father, and with other parent figures. This section of the report will address the issue of how youngsters perceive these relationships, particularly that with their father, and examine the extent to which these perceptions are influenced by the child's past family trajectory.

Before introducing the impact of family history, however, it is important to understand more generally how sex and age are determinant factors as children move into adolescence, modifying the perception of their relationship with parents. The analysis is divided into two parts: the first focussing on whether children feel able to confide in their biological father and mother, and the second looking more generally at children's relationship with the father figure with whom they spend the most time. Analyses are based on Cycle 3 information, collected from approximately 5000 children aged 10–15 years in 1998–99.

CAN I CONFIDE IN MY PARENTS?

In the self-completed questionnaire, children were asked to choose among a number of individuals, other than close friends, with whom they feel able to talk about themselves or their problems. The different individuals, and the proportion of children confiding in them, are shown in Figure 2.1. In interpreting these results, it is important to remember that they are not directly comparable, as not all children have each type of individual in their environment. Children are more likely to have a mother or father, for example, than they are to have a sister or brother, and much more so than they are to have a stepparent.

Figure 2.1   Proportion of children aged 10–15 years, according to various relatives or other individuals with whom they are able to talk about themselves and their problems, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

The results dispel any doubt about the pivotal role parents still play today in providing a safe haven for their children. From the list of potential confidants, most pre-teens and teens still share their problems with their parents: almost three quarters feel able to confide in their mother, and more than half in their father. Interestingly, just as more children confide in their mother than in their father, they are also more likely to talk to a sister (28 percent) than to a brother (20 percent). Many young people are also able to talk to grandparents (29 percent) and other relatives (30 percent). A quarter even have a teacher in whom they are able to confide—an encouragingly high percentage, given that many of these children are already in high school.

Do children's age and sex make a difference?

Children appear to find it easier to confide in mothers than in fathers. Does this depend on whether they are boys or girls? Is this closeness a permanent feature of the parent-child relationship, or does it evolve as children move from childhood to adolescence? In this section, we explore age and sex differences in the proportion of children who declare that they can talk to their father and mother about themselves and their problems. These two elements are fundamental, both because the children in the sample (aged 10–15 years) are in a transition period, often a turbulent one, in the evolution of their relationship with their parents, and because girls and boys seem to react differently during this passage.

Figure 2.2 examines the evolution of the relationship between fathers and mothers and their daughters and sons as they approach and enter the teenage years. Clearly, the distance between both boys and girls and their parents increases as they enter their teens. Whereas approximately four fifths of 10- and 11-year-old girls and boys were able to talk to their mother, the proportions dropped to under two thirds among 14- and 15-year-olds. There was a similar drop in the ability for children to talk to their father.

The gulf between fathers and daughters is particularly marked: while 58 percent of 10- and 11‑year-old girls declare their fathers to be confidants, the proportion dips to 39 percent by the time they reach 14 or 15 years. Boys remain more open with their fathers through their teens, with a slight majority (52 percent) still confiding in them at 14 or 15 years. In other words, although both boys and girls are more likely to confide in their mother than in their father, the difference between the two is much smaller for boys than girls, at all ages.

Figure 2.2   Proportion of girls and boys aged 10–15 years who are able to confide in their mother or father, by age group, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

Do children tend to have only one parent in whom they confide, or do those who talk to one also talk to the other? Figure 2.3 suggests that the way children relate to one parent often extends to both: over three quarters of children felt able to confide in both their parents or in neither (summing 52 percent and 24 percent). Among those confiding in only one of their parents, most (21 percent) talked only to their mother; only 3 percent selected their father as the only parent in whom they could confide. Whereas almost equal proportions of boys and girls declared being able to talk to neither parent, boys were significantly more likely to be able to confide in both parents than girls were; girls declared they could talk only to their mother more than twice as frequently as boys did.

Figure 2.3   Distribution of girls and boys aged 10–15 years, according to whether they are able to confide in their mother or father, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

How does age affect this distribution? The proportion of girls and boys who confide in neither parent increases rapidly, from about 15 percent at age 10–11 years to close to one third of adolescents aged 14–15 years . The proportion of those who confide in both parents declines in a similar manner; by the age of 14–15 years, just over one third (36 percent) of girls could confide in both parents, which was the case for almost half (48 percent) of the boys in this age group.

Figure 2.4   Distribution of girls and boys aged 10–15 years, according to whether they are able to confide in their mother or father, by age group, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998–99

Evidently, the ability to confide in parents is influenced strongly by the gender of both the parent and the child, and by the child's age. It seems "only natural" that children should talk to mothers more than fathers, given that the home and family continue to be predominantly the domain of women. That so many children are able to confide in their fathers says a great deal about the changing role of fathers from "breadwinners" to carers over the last few decades. It is also hardly unexpected that girls confide more in mothers than in fathers, particularly as they reach puberty. Nor is it surprising that boys and girls talk less to parents as they negotiate the transition to adulthood. Do factors other than these basic demographic characteristics also influence this aspect of the parent-child relationship? In the next section, we explore the relationship between children's family life course and their ability to confide in their father and mother.

What difference does children's family life course make?

At each survey cycle, data were collected on the child's residential family group. In cases of shared custody, this information refers to the household of the survey respondent—the individual selected as the "person most knowledgeable" about the child, which was the child's biological mother in more than 90 percent of cases. In Figure 2.5, we compare children living in six different family types in terms of whether they confide in their parents. The first two types include children and both their biological (or adoptive) parents; in the first, the parents have never separated; in the second, parents had separated at some point but got back together subsequently and were still together in 1998–99. Two stepfamily configurations are the biological mother and her spouse or partner, and the biological father and his spouse or partner. Finally, children may live in a lone-parent family with either their father or mother.

Figure 2.5   Distribution of children aged 10–15 years, according to whether they are able to confide in their mother or father, and according to their family environment, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

A first look at Figure 2.5 reveals that children in truly intact families are most likely to feel able to talk to both parents about themselves or their problems. Nearly 6 out of 10 do so, a considerably higher proportion than do children whose parents have reunited after a separation (40 percent). Children whose parents have reunited are also the most likely to feel unable to confide in either of their parents (35 percent). Is this reticence the result of scars from the parental break-up, even when parents try to start afresh? Or were children in these families less close to their parents even before the break-up? This cross-sectional image makes it impossible to know.

Whatever the explanation, in all family environments that involve a parental separation, children are similarly less predisposed to confide in both parents. They continue to feel more able to confide in their mother than in their father, except in the relatively infrequent arrangement where children remain in the care of their lone father. This greater closeness to the mother is only to be expected when children remain in their mother's care after separation and lose daily contact with their father. Surprisingly, it is also true among children living with their father and stepmother: almost twice as many felt able to talk only to their mother (23 percent) than only to their father (13 percent). Finally, only 36 (5 percent plus 31 percent) of children who remain with a lone mother felt able to talk about themselves and their problems with their father.

Figure 2.6   Among children aged 10–15 years who are able to confide in one of their parents, proportion who are not able to confide in the other, according to the family environment, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

The fact that children living with a lone mother are disinclined to confide in their father is confirmed in Figure 2.6, which focusses more directly on the association between family environment and the ability of young people to confide in their mother, father or both. For each family situation, Figure 2.6 gives the proportion of children who report being able to confide in their father, on the one hand, and in their mother, on the other. Most interesting are the proportions, among children able to confide in one parent, of those who say they are unable to confide in the other. Systematically, whatever the family environment (with the exception of lone-father families), a higher percentage of children confide in their mother but not their father, than the reverse. This finding confirms that "sharing problems" is something children do more with mothers than with fathers, and does not necessarily measure the quality of parenting.

Nonetheless, the fact that these differences are more glaring among children living with lone parents suggests that family history has some influence: when living with a lone father in whom they confide, three quarters of children are also able to confide in their mother, whereas under half of those living with, and confiding in, a lone mother also declare their father as someone with whom they can share problems. Many different factors may contribute to this situation, but these results suggest that father-child relationships suffer most from parental union disruption. In the next section, we use multivariate analysis techniques to measure the association between these and other variables and the propensity for young people to confide in their father.

Confiding in my father: A multivariate analysis

Using logistic regression analysis, we conducted a series of analyses in order to gain some insight into the relative importance of different variables for children's ability to confide in their father. Table 2.1 gives the odds ratios calculated for models that include the three principal variables: children's sex, age and family environment. These models confirm the significant role played by children's age and sex in the evolution of the relationship with their father as they move towards and through adolescence. They show that boys are almost twice as likely as girls are to confide in their father, and pre-teens are significantly more likely to do so than are teens.

Even controlling for these factors, however, family history also has a part to play. Children in any other family type are less likely to confide in their father than those living continuously with both biological parents; children living with their mother after separation, in lone-mother or stepfather families, are significantly less likely to do so, as are those whose parents reunited after a period apart. Only among children who continue living with their father after separation are the differences not significant.

Table 2.1   Impact of different variables on the likelihood that children aged 10–15 years will feel able to confide in their father, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998–99 (logistic regression,a N = 5272)

Sex (girl)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes)
  Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Boy 1.809*** 1.822*** 1.833***

Age (14–15)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes)
  Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
(10–11)   2.078*** 2.126***
(12–13)   1.541*** 1.505***

Family type (two parents)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes)
  Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Two parents reunited     0.504***
Lone mother     0.356***
Mother and spouse/partner     0.439***
Lone father     0.794
Father and spouse/partner     0.699

a   Odds ratios. Coefficients significant at:    = 0.1 *= 0.05 **= 0.01 ***= 0.001

Does the family environment remain important once other factors, such as socio-economic status, are taken into account? The full model presented in the first column of Table 2.2 shows this to be the case—the coefficients for family environment, as for children's age and sex, remain virtually unchanged. Although the education and gender of the survey respondent (the person most knowledgeable about the child) do not appear to be associated with a child's ability to confide in his father, two other variables are. In terms of regional differences, children in Quebec and, to a lesser extent, in British Columbia, feel more able to confide in their father than do children in Ontario. Income also seems to be associated with the type of father-child relationship. Children in high-income families are more likely to discuss their problems with their fathers than are children in low-income families.

Table 2.2   Impact of different variables on the likelihood that children aged 10–15 years will feel able to confide in their father or their mother, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998–99 (logistic regression,a N = 5272)

Sex (girl)
Variables Child able to confide in
Father (yes) Mother (yes)
Boy 1.825*** 0.842**

Age (14–15)
Variables Child able to confide in
Father (yes) Mother (yes)
(10–11) 2.135*** 2.524***
(12–13) 1.502*** 1.653***

Family type (Two parents)
Variables Child able to confide in
Father (yes) Mother (yes)
Two parents reunited 0.513*** 0.598**
Lone mother 0.395*** 0.675***
Mother and spouse/partner 0.445*** 0.906
Lone father 0.967 0.517**
Father and spouse/partner 0.753 0.648

Region (Ontario)
Variables Child able to confide in
Father (yes) Mother (yes)
Atlantic Provinces 1.089 0.953
Quebec 1.278** 1.410***
Prairies 1.051 0.953
British Columbia 1.165  1.095

Household income (< $30,000)
Variables Child able to confide in
Father (yes) Mother (yes)
$30,000–$49,999 1.187  0.907
$50,000–$79,999 1.138 0.779*
$80,000 or more 1.370** 0.900

PMKb education (high school diploma)
Variables Child able to confide in
Father (yes) Mother (yes)
Less than high school 0.986 0.753*
Beyond high school 1.099 1.144
College or university degree 1.113 1.219*

PMKb (mother)
Variables Child able to confide in
Father (yes) Mother (yes)
Father 0.917 0.746*
Other 0.486 0.562
What about the mother?

If family change is associated with children's feeling of being able to talk to their father, is this also true for the relationship with their mother? Coefficients given in the second column of Table 2.2 suggest that it is. Whether children live with their father or mother, living with a lone parent reduces children's ability to confide in the other parent. The same is true for children living in a stepfamily: children living with their mother and new spouse are less likely to confide in their father, and those living with their father and new spouse are less likely to confide in their mother.[9] That living with a lone mother also lowers the likelihood that children confide in their mother is more surprising. Living with a lone father, in contrast, does not affect children's ability to confide in him. Is this because fathers who assume the care of their children after separation were already particularly close to them before? Finally, the relationship with both parents appears to suffer when parents separate and reunite; children living through this kind of change are significantly less likely to confide in their mother, just as they were in their father.

The differences between children in Quebec and other Canadian children are even more pronounced when it comes to confiding in mothers than they are for fathers, although it is beyond the scope of this report to explain why. In addition, the more highly educated the children's mother, the more likely they are to confide in her.[10] Once education was controlled, in fact, the relationship with income was the reverse of the one that might be expected, with children from the lowest income families most likely to confide in their mother.

What about custody and contact?

The type of contact and custody arrangements made at separation will, to some extent, reflect the type of relationship that exists between fathers and children before separation. These arrangements will also influence the way this relationship develops during the years following separation. We look at this question in the third analysis, which is restricted to children whose parents separated at some point.

Table 2.3 Impact of different variables on the likelihood that children aged 10–15 years whose parents have separated feel able to confide in their father, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998–99 (logistic regression,a N = 1235)

Custody and contact at separation (with mother/sees father regularly)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes) Able to confide in their mother (yes)
With mother—irregular or no contact with father 0.637** 1.434*
Shared 1.551* 2.231*
With father 1.444 1.072
Years since separation 0.956* 0.991

Sex (girl)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes) Able to confide in their mother (yes)
Boy 1.613*** 0.938

Age (14–15)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes) Able to confide in their mother (yes)
(10–11) 1.504** 2.191***
(12–13) 1.671*** 1.193

Family environment (lone mother)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes) Able to confide in their mother (yes)
Mother and spouse/partner 0.919 1.316
Lone father 1.304 0.568*
Father and spouse/partner 0.895 0.718
Two parents reunited 0.881 0.835

Region (Ontario)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes) Able to confide in their mother (yes)
Atlantic Provinces 1.383 1.432
Quebec 1.176 1.446*
Prairies 1.349  1.416 
British Columbia 1.465  1.721*

Household income ($30,000)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes) Able to confide in their mother (yes)
$30,000–$49,999 1.331  0.882
$50,000–$79,999 1.815** 1.154
$80,000 or more 1.475 0.859

PMKb education (high school diploma)
Variables Able to confide in their father (yes) Able to confide in their mother (yes)
Less than high school 0.693 0.588*
Beyond high school 0.998 0.631*
College or university degree 0.831 0.715

Results of this analysis, given in Table 2.3, confirm the link between custody and contact arrangements made at separation and the ongoing relationship between children and separated parents. The importance of establishing regular contact with children from the start is clear. Whether or not children live with their father after separation, they are more likely to feel able to talk to him when he remains involved on a regular basis. Certainly, children living part of the time with their father are significantly more likely to confide in him than are those who live exclusively with their mother, even if they see their father regularly.

It is hard to know whether the shared physical custody creates the closeness, or whether it results from a closeness that existed before the separation. The even stronger association between shared custody and confiding in the mother suggests that families who opt for this arrangement are those in which communication between children and both parents is already good before the separation. Even controlling for the custody and contact established at separation, and for the fact that children are getting older, the relationship with the father suffers as the years since separation pass by, while the relationship with the mother does not.

As far as the other variables are concerned, children's age and sex continue to play the usual role, though to a lesser degree. Overall, there are few significant differences between the different family environments; nonetheless, children living with a lone father are most likely to confide in their father, and least likely to confide in their mother. Among children whose parents separate, regional differences are emerging; Ontario now stands out as the region in which children are least likely to confide in either of their parents, particularly their mother.

These analyses explored the relationship between children and their biological father and showed that, while children's sex and age are the central factors in the evolution of this relationship, family history is also important. We will now turn to the relationship between children and the father figure they have identified as the one who is most present in their daily lives. This will allow us to investigate the impact of family change on the individual who has taken on a paternal role in the children's life and to examine the extent to which children's perception of this father figure depends on the individual identified: the stepfather, the non-resident biological father or the resident father.

RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FATHER FIGURE

At the survey, children aged 10–15 years were asked to identify the father "they spend most time with," their choices being "biological father," "adoptive father," "stepfather," "foster father" or "another person." Two other options were also offered: "I am not in touch with my father" or "I do not have a father." This section analyzes in detail how children identify their "father" and links this choice to their family history and environment at the time of survey. Children are classified according to the type of father they have identified and according to their family status.

Not all children with a resident stepfather appear to have adhered strictly to the instruction to identify as father figure the "father" with whom they spent most time, however. Generally speaking, children living with a stepfather were more likely to select their biological father as the father figure when they had frequent contact with him, and particularly so if they had spent some time in shared custody arrangements. However, some selected him even though contact had been irregular, or even absent, during the 12 months preceding the survey. It is important to keep this in mind while interpreting the results of the following analyses.

My father, which father?

Table 2.4 shows which individuals were identified by children aged 10–15 years as the father figure with whom they spent the most time. Figures are also given for the individual identified as the mother figure, and differences between the distributions result primarily from the tendency for children to continue living with their mother after separation.

Table 2.4   Distribution of children aged 10–15 years, according to the mother and father figures identified as those with whom they spend the most time, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

Variables Canada
Mother figure %
Biological mother 95.7
Adoptive mother 1.6
Stepmother 1.2
Foster mother 0.3
Other 0.6
No contact with mother 0.6
I have no mother  
Total 100.0
N 5,100

Variables Canada
Father figure %
Biological father 87.0
Adoptive father 2.4
Stepfather 5.6
Foster father 0.2
Other 1.1
No contact with father 2.9
I have no father 0.7
Total 100.0
N 5,100

Although an overwhelming proportion (89 percent) of children identify their biological or adoptive father as the male with whom they spend the most time, they are nonetheless considerably more likely to identify someone other than a biological parent as a father figure than as a mother figure. In particular, they choose a stepfather as a parent with whom they spend the most time four times as frequently as they choose a stepmother (5.6 percent compared with 1.2 percent). This is to be expected, given that children live much more often with their stepfather than with their stepmother. The number of stepfathers is, therefore, adequate for a comparison of children's relationships with stepfathers and biological fathers. Finally, the proportion of 10- to 15-year-old children stating that they have no father, or have no contact at all with him, is significantly higher than the proportion stating the same about their mother.

When linked to the child's residential family unit , the diversity of situations and perceptions becomes more evident. Almost all children who were living with their biological or adoptive father at the time of the survey selected him as the father figure with whom they spent the most time; this was the case whether they had been living with him since birth, whether their parents had separated and reunited, or whether they had separated and the children had continued living with their father on a full or part time basis.

Predictably, children living with their mother and a stepfather most frequently selected another individual as father figure; nonetheless, a good proportion of them still identified their biological or adoptive father as the "father" with whom they spent the most time. This was also true for the vast majority of children living with a lone mother. Clearly, biological fathers generally remain fathers even when they do not reside with their children, and even if there is a stepfather in the picture. This variable will be central to our analysis of how new family trajectories influence children's relationships with their father.

Table 2.5   Distribution of children aged 10–15 years, according to their family environment and the father figure they have identified,a Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99
Child lives with … Canada
Two parents %
Never separated, biological father identified 73.1
Reunited, biological father identified 2.6
Never separated, other identified 0.8
Lone mother
Biological father identified 11.4
Other identified 1.9
Mother and spouse/partner
Biological father identified 2.6
Other identified 4.1
Lone father
Biological father identified 2.4
Father and spouse/partner
Biological father identified 1.1
Total 100.0
N 4,875

a   Excluding children who said they had no father/mother, or had no contact.

How close am I to my "father"?

Four questions referred to the child's evaluation of his or her relationship with the individuals selected as the main mother and father figures. Children were asked the following:

  • How well do you feel that your father (mother) understands you?
  • How much fairness do you receive from your father (mother)?
  • How much affection do you receive from your father (mother)?
  • Overall, how would you describe your relationship with your father (mother): very close, somewhat close, not very close, I am not in touch with my father (mother), I don't have a father (mother)?

The distributions of responses for each question are compared in Figures 2.7a to 2.7d, for the three parent figures most commonly identified by children: the biological or adoptive mother, the biological or adoptive father, and the stepfather. These four figures suggest generally very positive relationships between children and their biological or adoptive parents.

Whatever the indicator chosen (parent understands child, is fair, gives affection or is close to the child overall), only a small minority of children (between 6 percent and 12 percent) gave a negative evaluation (very little / not very close). In addition, differences in children's perception of their biological mother and father are not very great. Mothers score a little higher in understanding children , giving them affection , and overall closeness . Their scores are almost identical in terms of "fairness" , a question that may be less biased towards the affective, or "maternal," aspects of the parent-child relationship

More marked than differences between biological mothers and fathers is the difference between stepfathers and biological fathers. Overall, children clearly have a higher opinion of the quality of their relationship with a biological father than with a stepfather. Among children selecting a stepfather as the father figure with whom they spend the most time, twice as many report very little understanding from a stepfather, three times as many report very little fairness or affection, and more than twice as many declare that, overall, their relationship with the stepfather is not very close.

Nonetheless, since many of these stepfathers have been in the picture for a relatively short time, it is perhaps encouraging to see that the relationship with a stepfather is more often seen in a highly positive light than in a negative one: 45 percent of children whose main father figure is a stepfather, for example, state that they receive "a great deal" of affection from him, compared with 21 percent who receive "very little" . Overall, therefore, these figures indicate that children's perception of their relationship with parent figures is mostly positive. In the following sections, we attempt to uncover some factors that may affect the quality of these relationships.

Figure 2.7a   Perception of the relationship with the most common mother and father figures identified by children aged 10‑15 years, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

Figure 2.7b   Perception of the relationship with the most common mother and father figures identified by children aged 10‑15 years, Canada, NLSY, Cycle 3, 1998–99

Figure 2.7c   Perception of the relationship with the most common mother and father figures identified by children aged 10‑15 years, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998–99

Figure 2.7d   Perception of the relationship with the most common mother and father figures identified by children aged 10‑15 years, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998–99

A matter of co-residence?

Most children selecting their biological father as the father figure have lived their entire life with him; those selecting a stepfather have generally only lived part of it with him. To what extent does this explain these differences between stepfathers and fathers? Are children's perceptions of their biological father affected by living apart from him? In Table 2.6, the proportions of children replying negatively to questions about their father figure are compared by the type of family environment in which they were living in 1998–99.

  • Children express negative feelings about their father least often when there has been no family change at all—when they have lived with both biological parents since birth.
  • After separation, children feel more positively about fathers with whom they live. When living with a lone father, or with their father and stepmother, children perceive their father negatively less frequently than when they live with their lone mother or when their parents separate for a spell.
  • Among children living with their mother and stepfather, children who selected their stepfather as the father figure expressed negative feelings more frequently than those who chose their biological father. The difference between fathers and stepfathers persists, in other words, even when children do not live with their father.
  • Among children living with their mother and stepfather, the largest difference between biological fathers and stepfathers, as perceived by the children, is "fairness." On this "male role" question, children declare their stepfather unfair to them four times as often as they do their biological father.
  • Interestingly, among children living with both biological parents, those whose parents have separated at some point are much more likely to respond negatively to questions about their relationship with their biological father than are those whose parents have never separated. Is it the time spent apart that has undermined the paternal relationship?

Table 2.6 Indicators of the perception children aged 10–15 years have of their relationship with the father figure, according to the family environment, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

Biological father identified:
Proportion of children who say their father figure …
Family environment and father figure is not very close to them % is not very fair % understands them very little % gives very little affection %
Parents never separated 7.9 5.1 10.0 6.3
Parents reunited 19.0 6.5 19.4 17.4

Lives with lone biological mother:
Proportion of children who say their father figure …
Family environment and father figure is not very close to them % is not very fair % understands them very little % gives very little affection %
Biological father identified 16.4 11.3 20.5 9.7
Other identified 33.8 12.2 22.5 20.8

Lives with biological mother and spouse/partner:
Proportion of children who say their father figure …
Family environment and father figure is not very close to them % is not very fair % understands them very little % gives very little affection %
Biological father identified 12.5 4.2 15.0 12.5
Stepfather identified 25.0 17.3 23.3 19.5

Lives with lone biological father:
Proportion of children who say their father figure …
Family environment and father figure is not very close to them % is not very fair % understands them very little % gives very little affection %
Biological father identified 12.6 8.9 11.6 6.4

Lives with biological father and spouse/partner:
Proportion of children who say their father figure …
Family environment and father figure is not very close to them % is not very fair % understands them very little % gives very little affection %
Biological father identified 11.8   9.6 9.6

Although there is a clear association between residence and the relationship with the biological father, we come up again against the problem of cause or effect. Are children closer to fathers with whom they live after separation because they live with them, or are they living with them precisely because of their close relationship before separation? Most likely, both factors come into play, reinforcing each other in a positive or negative way.

A matter of sex and age?

We have already shown differences between girls and boys in terms of their ability to confide in their parents and in their fathers in particular. We have also determined that such differences increase with age during adolescence. Table 2.7 confirms that these observations remain true when we dig deeper into gender differences in the type of relationship that exist between girls, boys and their parent figures, controlling for age. Girls' perception of their closeness with the father figure undergoes the biggest drop at the onset of adolescence: 65 percent of 10- and 11‑year-old girls say they feel very close to their father, as opposed to only 25 percent of 14- and 15-year-old girls. Whatever the age group, boys clearly feel closer to their father, although less than half (43 percent) of boys still feel very close to him when they reach age 14 or 15.

Table 2.7 Children's perception of the closeness of the relationship with their father and mother figures, by sex and age group, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

Girls Relationship with the father figure
  Very close
%
Somewhat close
%
Not very closea
%
Total
%
N
10–11 years 64.6 26.1 9.3 100.0 853
12–13 years 43.5 41.2 15.2 100.0 833
14–15 years 25.0 50.5 24.5 100.0 867
All 44.0 39.5 16.5 100.0 2,553

Boys Relationship with the father figure
  Very close
%
Somewhat close
%
Not very closea
%
Total
%
N
10–11 years 70.9 19.9 9.2 100.0 830
12–13 years 56.6 34.7 8.7 100.0 838
14–15 years 42.9 41.7 15.5 100.0 873
All 56.3 32.4 11.3 100.0 2,541

Girls Relationship with the mother figure
  Very close
%
Somewhat close
%
Not very closea
%
Total
%
N
10–11 years 77.0 20.1 2.9 100.0 845
12–13 years 61.7 32.1 6.2 100.0 854
14–15 years 41.9 44.2 13.8 100.0 875
All 59.7 32.5 7.8 100.0 2,574

Boys Relationship with the mother figure
  Very close
%
Somewhat close
%
Not very closea
%
Total
%
N
10–11 years 84.4 11.3 4.3 100.0 834
12–13 years 64.7 32.0 3.3 100.0 837
14–15 years 46.9 46.0 7.2 100.0 870
All 64.8 30.2 5.0 100.0 2,541

a  Including children who said they had no father or mother, or had no contact.

When considering the same indicator in relation to the proximity to the mother figure, both girls and boys declare a considerably higher degree of closeness, and a less accentuated reduction, as they grow older. Age and sex, therefore, appear to remain discriminating factors in children's evaluation of their relationship with their father figure. These factors should constitute significant variables in our multivariate analysis.

A matter of socio-economic background?

How far is the socio-economic environment a potential stimulus of or deterrent to positive relationships between children and their parents? The distribution of children according to the closeness of their relationship with the father figure and household income in Figure 2.8 provides an insight into possible links. Clearly, there seems to be some association: the proportion of children declaring that they do not feel very close to their father increases noticeably from the highest income households (8 percent) to the lowest (25 percent). However, such a link may very well be mediated through the family environment, as lone-parent families are often among the lowest income households. In the next section, we use logistic regression to help clarify the role played by the family environment as opposed to socio-economic background.

How close am I to my "father"? A multivariate analysis

The majority of children assessed their relationship with their father figure as being "very close." In this analysis, we attempt to identify which characteristics are associated with an increased probability that children do not feel very close to their father figure. Results are given in Table 2.8. As expected, children's age and sex have a significant impact in all models and do so in the expected direction.

In terms of family environment, once all the control variables are introduced into the model (model 4), only living with a lone mother significantly raises the probability that children will not feel very close to their father. The significant result in model 3, for children living with a mother and stepfather, disappears once we control for the identity of the father figure. Thus children in stepfather families who identify their stepfather as the father figure are significantly less likely to feel very close to their biological father than are those who selected their biological father as the father figure. Children who live with their biological father after separation, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to feel very close to him, even more so than are children whose parents have never separated.

As for the other control variables, findings support a pattern mentioned earlier. Children who feel able to talk to their father are generally able to talk to their mother as well. In this analysis, children who evaluate their relationship with their mother as "somewhat close" or "not very close" are much more likely to characterize their relationship with their father in the same way. In addition, while household income has no apparent effect, education (generally the mother's education) has an unexpected effect: the higher the education level, the more likely children are to feel not very close to their father. Finally, children in Quebec are significantly more likely not to feel very close to their father figure than are children living in other Canadian regions, which is an unexpected result in light of earlier analyses.

Figure 2.8   Distribution of children aged 10–15 years, according to the closeness of their relationship with their father, by household income, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998‑99

Table 2.8 Impact of different factors on the likelihood that childrena will not feel very close to their father figure, Canada, NLSCY, Cycle 3, 1998–99 (logistic regression,b N = 4719)

Sex (boy)
Variables Likelihood of not feeling very close to father figure
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Girl 1.731*** 1.828*** 1.815*** 1.938***

Age (10–11 years)
Variables Likelihood of not feeling very close to father figure
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
(12–13 years)   2.295*** 2.421*** 1.839***
(14–15 years)   4.544*** 4.798*** 2.932***

Family environment (two parents)
Variables Likelihood of not feeling very close to father figure
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Two parents reunited     1.233 0.973
Lone mother     2.634*** 2.564***
Mother and spouse/partner     1.691*** 1.051
Lone father     0.856 0.481**
Father and spouse/partner     0.663 0.386**

Father figure (biological father)
Variables Likelihood of not feeling very close to father figure
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Stepfather       2.512***
Other       2.277*

Close to mother (very)
Variables Likelihood of not feeling very close to father figure
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Somewhat close       11.405***
Not very close       7.170***
Household income (continuous)       1.000

PMKc education (high school diploma)
Variables Likelihood of not feeling very close to father figure
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Less than high school       0.676**
Beyond high school       1.107
College or university degree       1.212 

Region (Ontario)
Variables Likelihood of not feeling very close to father figure
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Atlantic Provinces       1.014
Quebec       1.680***
Prairies       0.965
British Columbia       0.967

DISCUSSION

This section has provided some novel insights into the evolution of children's perception of their relationship with their parents and parent figures. It has highlighted the key role played by the gender of parents and children, and by children's age, during the transition to adolescence.

Nevertheless, care should be taken in interpreting these results for a number of reasons.

First, these perceptions are closely related to their historical context. A generation ago, children might have declared less "closeness" to both mothers and fathers. A generation into the future, gender differences may have disappeared completely.

Second, the questions were mostly "affective" in nature, relating to warmth and communication and therefore more appropriate to "mother" roles. Responses to the only "male" question (whether parent figures treat the child fairly) showed little difference between children's perception of mothers and fathers. It would be interesting to have asked children what they expect from their father rather than from their mother.

Also, not only are some questions more related to affective aspects of the parent-child relationship; in addition, girls and boys may themselves interpret the questions differently, or they may have different expectations of what it means to be able to confide in, or to be close to, a parent. Girls tend to mature earlier than boys, which may partly account for differences in the evolution by age. Is the increasing distance evident during early adolescence part of the move towards independence? Is there a reversal of the trend as children progress through their teens? Data from further cycles should clarify this issue.

We have repeatedly come across the question of cause and effect between children's perception of their parent figures and family change. While there is undoubtedly a negative relationship between "alternative" family environments and the closeness children feel towards parents, it is hard to know how to interpret this. Only by following the evolution of children's perceptions of parent figures before and after family change would it be possible to assess whether the significantly closer relationships associated with shared physical custody, for example, were there before separation. Then we could also explain whether this closeness resulted from the contact between parents and children living in shared custody.


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