a critique of Silverstein and Auerbach's article

The following is liz's critique of a scholarly article written by Louise B. Silverstein and Carl F. Auerbach, "Deconstructing the Essential Father," and published in AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST, Vol. 54, No. 6 397-407 (June 1999.)

A quote from that article:

"[O]ur research with divorced, never-married, and remarried fathers has taught us that a wide variety of family structures can support positive child outcomes.  We have concluded that children need at least one responsible, caretaking adult who has a positive emotional connection to them and with whom they have a consistent relationship... We share the concern that many men in U.S. society do not have a feeling of emotional connection or a sense of responsibility toward their children.  However, we do not believe that the data support the conclusion that fathers are essential to child well-being and that heterosexual marriage is the social context in which responsible fathering is most likely to occur."

Wade Horn and company mischaracterize and misemphasize what the research on fatherhood says, and then engineer conclusions that they wished the research supported. Silverstein and Auerbach correctly posit the state of current research, but then ignore it in pursuit of their own agenda. I'm not sure which is worse. And -- this might surprise you -- I'm not even sure there are ideological differences at the core.

I've got two good things to say about the article written by Louise B. Silverstein and Carl F. Auerbach, "Deconstructing the Essential Father," and published in AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST, Vol. 54, No. 6 397-407 (June 1999.)

First, in some ways it's scrupulously brave and honest. No one after reading this article need investigate further to ascertain whether the research these authors cite says what it says (it does), or look for hidden motives in the author's conclusions. They lay themselves bare. That gives them a big lizovation for candor, albeit their honesty isn't coming from a lack of bias or agenda. But Silverstein and Auerbach also say right out what that agenda is in case it's not obvious to the reader: to promote fathering, specifically, to promote fathering in situations other than within the context of the married heterosexual family.

Given the distorted and deceptive research-reporting-and-summarizing permeating virtually all of the currently trendy and prolific fatherhood-exaltation movement writings, these authors deserve major kudos for their bravery as well as honesty. But the bravery I'm referring to isn't their political stand in favor of gay fathers. I'm talking about plain old chutzpah. It takes a lot of guts to gather up and honestly report on a panoply of research which doesn't support where one wants to go... and then... go there anyway.

Currently, Silverstein and Auerbach are taking a lot of heat from all around, ironically not because they cited to what the research on fathering actually has found -- many others have done that. [See e.g. Chuck Shively, "Examining the Link Between Access to Children and Payment of Support," DIVORCE LITIGATION, vo. 11, no. 5 (May 1999)]. They are taking heat because, unlike most other scholar-pundits these days, they've not taken their findings in the particular direction the powers-that-be in the pro-marriage fatherhood movement want them to go.

In doing this, however, I'm not sure Silverstein and Auerbach served their own purposes either. They've written a powerful article that on a careful critical read, actually subverts, not only the traditionalist marriage crowd, but also the authors' own liberal pro-fatherhood goals and agendas. I happen to love that, but regret that most persons don't know what a critical read is. No one else seems to be talking about the overlooked issues.

My second ovation: the article has really pissed off Wade Horn, founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative. I, liz, really love that. Who wouldn't? He's so humorless. But I think even HORN appreciates this article in that way -- it's a major publicity opportunity, a golden moment enabling him to get on the soapbox yet again, this time with audience perky and supportive and alert to an unfolding academic "controversy," do his mischaracterizing and misemphasizing thing in a frothed-up invigorated way, and reiterate the National Fatherhood Propaganda, stuff which usually is pretty traditionalist ho-hum and gets yawns in the media.

I wish I could "love" the article, and these researchers' work a little more, however.

I received a number of telephone calls and emails the moment the article came out, telling me how much I would. "Hey Liz, you've got to read this! They go head-to-head with all the Wade Horn and all the RR stuff!" But as much as I dislike dishonesty in the reporting of research these days, I deplore illogic even more.

Silverstein and Auerbach have been "qualitatively" researching their group of subjects, a collection of gay and other-than-traditional but involved fathers. In looking at these self-selected involved fathers, Silverstein and Auerbach have come to the conclusion that good fathers can be found in a variety of settings, not just married traditional homes.

That is the sum total of their unremarkable findings.

Did I just arrive here from another planet, or does anyone actually dispute that there are good men and valuable male role models who aren't married to the women who bore their children? (I say this notwithstanding the "fan mail" I sometimes get about this website, calling me all kinds of names implying I hate men.)

That finding is not enough for an article, and so it has been paraded out as the ostensible reason for a write up whose larger purpose is to further a political agenda. In fact Silverstein and Auerbach didn't end up writing an article primarily about their own research at all. They wrote a summary of other researchers' studies on fatherhood and child well-being, a recitation of the most obvious conclusions from that research, and a political wish list which gives us some insight into why they are researching what they are researching. Their own research added little to the mix, not to mention it wasn't even focused particularly on child wellbeing, but on male behavior. For example, they write:

"[O]ur research with divorced, never-married, and remarried fathers has taught us that a wide variety of family structures can support positive child outcomes. We have concluded that children need at least one responsible, caretaking adult who has a positive emotional connection to them and with whom they have a consistent relationship... we do not believe that the data support the conclusion that fathers are essential to child well-being... [or] that heterosexual marriage is the social context in which responsible fathering is most likely to occur."

Notwithstanding the way that seems to be worded, it appears from the rest of the article in context that Silverstein and Auerbach's position is not that fathers are more likely to be BETTER fathers in situations outside of marriage, but simply that good fathers can be found in alternate milieus, too, and that marriage neither necessarily enhances nor detracts from that. Didn't everyone already know that?

So what's the controversy? And what's Horn's beef? Isn't that hapless conclusion about good alternate fathering (nevermind what it follows), itself actually right in line with much that Wade Horn and the fatherhood-exaltation agenda is spouting now as their "step one programs" -- unwed biological father "involvement" and rights, male parental responsibility, joint custody, and so forth?

Okay, so it doesn't support the ultimate goal of that conservative movement (which has nothing so much to do with children or parenting at all, but is an anti-feminist reinstitute-the-patriarchy pro-marriage backlash.) Even so, it's hardly oppositional to the "responsible fatherhood" propaganda.

Maybe all the noise around -- on both sides -- is intended to obscure that Silverstein and Auerbach's conclusion actually follows a summary of research that points to that conclusion as one of little importance anyway.

It's a big fat "so what."

These researchers have written an article largely about findings which, laid right out as the --ta-da!-- mean very little contextually. We're all quite sure that no matter what kind of family a kid might have, we might find some great kids. We're all already sure that good fathers could be found among some unwed men. We'll even bet that there are devoted and caring parents to be found in all kinds of settings and from all walks and proclivities of life (and the reverse, too.)

But the still-unaddressed question, one which Silverstein and Auerbach apparently aren't interested answering, except as a means of disputing the traditionalist [what they call the "essentialist"] position on male parenting, is just that big fat "so what."

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Are fathers important? Are FATHERS (as such) necessary? Because with regard to nonresidential fathers, regardless of how great they are, or how involved they are, we want to know where to go with the information. How do fathers impact child wellbeing.

What we got instead of an answer was an article alluding to the gender neutrality of it all, and how sex or sexual preference or gender identity of a parent really doesn't matter, and how every kid needs at least one PARENT, and so: in conclusion, we need to increase responsible fathering.


While Horn focuses on arguing with a rather indisputable premise, my own problem is with Silverstein and Auerbach's conclusion. Their conclusion simply doesn't follow.

Silverstein and Auerbach answer the "so what" question through their summary of other researchers' findings, and do so quite weirdly, in seeming opposition to their own stated agenda. That research indicates that great and involved fathers, especially those who are not resident in a child's household, are NOT particularly important, and it debunks the essential male parenting role. According to the research, and according to these researchers, the only important parent would be that "at least one, responsible, caring adult" necessary for a positive child rearing outcome.

And who would that parent be?

The authors breeze right past any discussion of the importance of mothers. They don't even dip their toes into this part of the subject area, saying little about motherhood except to give short shrift to the impact of pregnancy and breastfeeding as biological generators of "instinctual" nurturing. They appear to recognize nothing about any aspect of these real and real-life parenting experiences that might contribute to social and other nonbiological environmental parental conditioning.

The article is valuable as a nice overview of the current state of fatherhood research, provided all of the authors' own conclusions which don't follow copiously are factored out. (I've had similar comments about Shively's article.) And anything which irritates Wade Horn is, of course, great fun.

But it's brazenly internally inconsistent and in some ways that may be even more dishonest than Wade Horn's overt disagreement over family values. The real issue isn't Silverstein's and Auerbach's stab at the "essentialist" bull. The problem with their article can be found right in its own words:

"Taken as a whole, the empirical research does not support the idea that fathers make a unique and essential contribution to child development. From our perspective it is not the decline of marriage that is discouraging responsible fathering. Rather, various social conditions inhibit involved parenting by unmarried and divorced men."

In short, parenting is a gender-neutral thing. For argument's sake let's accept that premise (theoretically I believe it), and for argument's sake let's also ignore that the authors ignore that the influences affecting "gender" and that gender roles are far more than just biology by the time a person is old enough to be a parent.

The premise of Silverstein and Auerbach's article is that children need ONE, responsible, committed, loving and authoritative caregiver. (I myself have said as much, and the research has found as much over and over and over again for years.)

So then why do we care if "various social conditions inhibit involved parenting by unmarried and divorced men"? WHY DO WE CARE?

If we're to be honest, we DON'T care. Not based on these findings, not based on this premise. According to Silverstein's and Auerbach's article, we should NOT care about this at all, this issue of "responsible fatherhood." And if we're really brave -- brave enough to discard the propaganda and face the real controversy head-on, as Silversein and Auerbach only pretend to be doing -- we will admit flat out that there's another "agenda" here that's not being so honestly expressed, and that that agenda happens to be the very same one shared by the Fatherhood Initiative. (Was the entire media "controversy" a setup, a red herring, to divert attention from the real deal?)

We simply don't have a problem in this country that the overwhelming most of little children are not living with that one adult that Silverstein and Auerbach report that children need, and it's usually a parent. Most children already have that one parent. And that one parent is their mother.

We hardly have reached the point in this country in which we are optimizing the viability of single parent households, some of which, but relatively few of which, are or ever will be single father households, and most of which are single mother households.

So why oh why this constant persistence in looking elsewhere for things to study, work on, research, talk about? I'm not moved to solve problems that are academic. I'm interested in attending to the real ones.

Single mothers need and deserve a lot better than they currently get in the way of attention and support than we as a society are devoting.

Except to speciously tout their negatives as heads of households, women -- mothers who are devoting their bodies, lives, and futures to rearing the future citizens of this country, mothers who notwithstanding the child support and welfare brouhahas of recent years STILL as a group are carrying the bulk of the cost of raising children on their collective backs, mothers who already ARE interested, responsible, ready, willing, able to rear their children and, above all, mothers who already ARE there and ARE doing it, and DON'T need incentives to care for their own children (notwithstanding every difficulty women alone have faced and still face in this regard) -- as well as the children these mothers already ARE rearing, once again are shunted aside so that we can once again make the trendy subject of importance:


And in this, Silverstein and Auerbach have a lot in common with Wade Horn and his ilk. In fact, Horn's angst seems to be hailing less from lack of kinship with Silverstein and Auerbach, and more from a discomfort that those crude and dirty country cousins have showed up in public and didn't use the right fork at the table.

Meanwhile, single mothers and children are still wondering whether there's going to be food on theirs.

I for one am sick of it.

-- liz


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