Importance of African American male teens’ ties to fathers gauged

December 18, 1995

ANN ARBOR—The two-parent household may not be a critical factor for the healthy development of urban African American male adolescents, according to a study from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Instead, what seems to keep Black male teens on an even keel is a strong relationship with the father—whether or not he is under the same roof—and supportive mothers. The study, which is published in the December issue of Child Development, examines the relationship between family structure and the psychosocial development, drug use and dropout rate among 254 African American male adolescents from an inner city on the East Coast.

Marc A. Zimmerman, associate professor of public health, and his colleagues studied the psychosocial effects of five different household constellations—single parent, both parents, parent and step-parent, single mother and extended family, and extended family but no parent.

Some of the more surprising findings were:

–The adolescents living in single-mother households actually received more parental support than those in twoparent homes or those living with only extended family. ” And contrary to the stereotype, the adolescents living with single mothers were no more likely to use alcohol and drugs, engage in delinquency, or drop out of school than those in other household constellations.

“It may be that the mothers work hard to compensate for the fathers’ absence, or it may be that more absent fathers maintain relationships with their sons than we have recognized,” Zimmerman said.

–Many African American fathers who did not live with their sons in the study were very much present in their son’s lives. Notably, 33 percent of all the teen-age boys in the study said they spent an impressive 10 or more hours a week with their fathers, and 25 percent of those who did not live with their fathers still spent 10 or more hours a week with them. “Sons who spent time with their fathers regularly were less likely to be depressed and anxious,” Zimmerman noted. “We also found that those who received emotional support from their fathers were less likely to be delinquent and use marijuana.” Over half the sons living with single mothers said they received emotional support from their fathers and another 40 percent who lived in extended families, with or without mothers, got emotional support from fathers.

–While boys living with both biological parents were most likely to cite their fathers as role models (96 percent), 44 percent of those not living with their fathers also said their fathers were their role models. The sons whose fathers were role models were somewhat more likely to stay in school. “Our study sheds some light on this typically understudied, and perhaps misunderstood, population, and it casts doubt on the myth that dual-parent households are necessary for the healthy development of African American males. What matters is parental involvement in their children’s lives. “It also challenges the assumption that African American fathers absent from the home don’t have significant relationships with their sons and that the single mothers are alone in their efforts to support their sons,” Zimmerman said. Zimmerman’s colleagues were Deborah A. Salem, assistant professor of psychology, Michigan State University, and Kenneth I. Maton, associate professor of psychology, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.