Non-residential fathers aren’t necessarily absentee, research shows

SHARE Non-residential fathers aren’t necessarily absentee, research shows

Waldo E. Johnson Jr.

Let me first say “Happy Father’s Day” to all the fathers in the house, and especially to those fathers who don’t live with their sons and daughters.

You’ve gotten a bum rap.

For as long as I can remember, we’ve pushed the narrative that not having fathers in the home is at the root of all the troubles in the black community.

But one professor at the University of Chicago is doing groundbreaking research on African-American fathers that challenges the negative stereotypes and assumptions about the relationship these non-residential fathers have with their children.


Waldo E. Johnson Jr., an associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, is the co-investigator of “The Chicago Fathers and Sons Project.”

He’s in the third year of a five-year federally funded study that seeks to promote positive behaviors among fathers, such as healthy eating, and discourages negative behaviors, such as smoking and drug use.

“Even fathers who do not live in the households with their children should not be viewed as fathers who are totally uninvolved,” Johnson told me.

“The research shows they are indeed involved. It is interesting, when you compare African-American fathers to their racial and ethnic peers, the black fathers have the highest rate of involvement,” he said.

For you naysayers who just can’t wrap your brains around the notion that black fathers who don’t live with their children still play an important role in their children’s lives, Johnson notes the research goes back 16 years.

“The fathers and the mothers came into the study at the point the child was born. We’ve been able to document the involvement of these fathers across time,” he said.

Johnson also noted that social media has changed the interactions between fathers and their children.

“There are ways that this involvement can occur besides visiting or being with the child,” Johnson said, referencing social media, Facebook and Twitter, in addition to telephone calls and text messaging.

He acknowledges, however, that stereotypes can be difficult to break even in the face of “contrary or conflicting evidence.”

“I notice people are often using anecdotal experiences to represent entire populations. To the extent that a sizeable proportion of African-American fathers tend to be non-resident, people talk about their own personal experience or father, or someone known to them,” he said.

My own father was a remarkable parent even after he and my mother divorced. As unusual as it was at the time, my father took full custody of my younger siblings.

My own sons are amazing fathers as well and have been fully involved in their children’s lives.

Johnson’s research shows the role of fathers is critically important in terms of a child’s development, and makes the case that any intervention program targeting fragile families should make an effort to include non-residential fathers as well.

“There are ways that fathers, with respect to their involvement, might complement what mothers might do. Parenting, even when two parents are involved, is still a very difficult and challenging endeavor,” he said.

The most surprising thing to come out of the “Chicago Fathers and Sons Project” so far is the support custodial mothers have shown, Johnson told me.

“Even though many of these fathers and the mothers of their children are not necessarily coupled anymore, I am always heartened by the response we get from mothers when talking about enrolling their kids in the study,” he said.

“Many of these mothers are very happy to know there is an opportunity that is structured where they can provide [their children] the chance to spend more time with their fathers,” he said.

“It is important to recognize that fathers who do not live with their children are not necessarily deadbeat dads. It is also unwise for us to assume that dads who live in the household with their children actually have a lot of involvement. Present is not the same as involvement,” he added.

Here’s to the fathers who know the difference.

We need so many more of you.

Because whenever I see a black child sitting on a black man’s shoulders, I can’t help but smile.

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