Supporting Father Involvement by Supporting Couple Relationships

Recent findings from the California-based Supporting Father Involvement Study, make a compelling case that one of the best ways to enhance father involvement in families and to support optimal child development is through couple-oriented parenting programs that focus on the quality of the relationship between the parents. This finding is particularly worthy of attention since most programs for fathers – most parent education programs for that matter – do not focus on the couple relationship.

The Supporting Father Involvement study was conducted by Phillip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan, professors emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, with co-investigators, Marsha Kline Pruett, of Smith College and Kyle Pruett of Yale University. Parents, (primarily from low-income families) were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a 16-week fathers-only program, a 16-week program for father/mother couples or a three-hour information session, which focused on fathers’ importance to their children’s well-being. The fathers’ groups and the couples’ groups had essentially the same content, which focused on the couple relationship and parenting issues as well. Families were assessed on these and a number of other central aspects of family life at the outset of the study, once shortly after the groups ended, and then again 18 months later.

The Findings

On some measures the fathers’ and the couples’ groups were found to have similar effects. Specifically, participation in the 16-week groups was associated with statistically significant increases in father involvement (father engagement, sharing of parenting tasks) and stable levels of children’s problem behaviours. The low-dose intervention did not increase father involvement and was associated with an increase in children’s problem behaviours.

However, the key finding is that participation in the couples’ groups was associated with additional, more consistent and longer-term effects than those found in families participating in the fathers only groups.

Specifically, parents in the couples’ groups showed declines in parenting stress and maintained their level of marital quality and satisfaction, effects that were not shown by families participating in the fathers-only groups. This stability in marital satisfaction seen in the couples’ groups (marital satisfaction declined in the fathers’ group families) is a very significant finding because previous research has consistently shown that new parenthood is associated with a decline in marital satisfaction (Cowan and Cowan 1992, Gottman, 2008).

New Data Confirms Previous Findings

It’s important to note that these findings about the impact of couples’ groups are not isolated or even new. In fact, the Supporting Father Involvement study replicates and confirms findings from a 30-year body of research. The Cowans’ work has demonstrated repeatedly that enhancing the couple relationship improves both father involvement and child outcomes. The Supporting Father Involvement Study was the first time the intervention effect was demonstrated in low-income families.

What’s interesting is that the Cowans, who are originally from Toronto, Ontario, did not start out with the primary goal of supporting father involvement. They were, in a sense, trying to save marriages. “We started out wanting to help couples navigate the transition to parenthood, which we found difficult ourselves,” says Carolyn Pape Cowan. Their early work, including the Becoming a Family project, documented a decline in marital satisfaction, increases in conflict and a more gender-stereotypical and traditional pattern of domestic roles in the first 18 months after the birth of a couple’s first child for couples with no special help.

However, as their research program developed, the Cowans noticed several interesting things. One was that, even in the absence of a systematic attempt to improve parenting skills, parents who participated in groups focused primarily on marital issues were using more effective parenting techniques. Another was that there was a direct, causal connection between the quality of the relationship between the parents and the cognitive and social competence of their children.

Why They Changed the Name of the Study

Phil Cowan explains a third insight. “We found that our data about fathers was more predictive of child outcomes than the data about mothers.” The Cowans cannot say for sure exactly why this is so, because their research was not designed answer this question. However, they think the answer is that there is more variability in fathering (quality, level of involvement) than there is in mothering.

These insights led the Cowans to an increasing interest in the relationship between couple functioning and father involvement. As their work continued it became more and more clear that a “side effect” of supporting parents’ couple relationship is enhanced father involvement.

Parent educators and other professionals looking for ways to improve father involvement in families should take note, because couple relationships are not typically the focus of fathering programs (nor, for that matter, parenting programs in general.)

“Almost all father engagement interventions involve men’s participation in programs led by male speakers, counselors, or group leaders,” says Carolyn. ““The paradox is that the single most powerful predictor of fathers’ engagement with their children is the quality of the men’s relationship with the child’s mother, regardless of whether the couple is married, divorced, separated, or never married.”

That’s why the Cowans believe there should be a greater emphasis on the couple relationship in programs designed to enhance parenting and father involvement. They would also like to see an increased father-focus in programming for parents and more father-inclusive practices in services for families.

The Cowans do not suggest that fathers-only groups are of no value. In fact, their research documents benefits of father’s groups. As Phil Cowan notes, “Fathers groups are helpful, but when we had fathers and mothers together we found added benefits.”

References and Further Reading

Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., & Pruett, K. D. (2009). Promoting Fathers’ Engagement With Children: Preventative Interventions for Low-Income Families. Journal of Marriage and Family 71 : 663 – 679
Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2000). When partners become parents : the big life change for couples. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2009). How working with couples fosters children's development: From prevention science to public policy. In M. Schulz, M. K. Pruett, P. Kerig & R. D. Parke (Eds.), Strengthening couple relationships for optimal child development. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.
Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., & Pruett, K. D. (2009). Six barriers to father involvement and suggestions for overcoming them. National Council of Family Relations Report, 54.
Gottman, J. G., & Gottman, J. S. (2008). And baby makes three: The six-step plan for preserving marital intimacy and rekindling romance after baby arrives Three Rivers Press.
Pruett, M. K., Cowan, C. P., Cowan, P. A., & Pruett, K. (2009). Lessons learned from the Supporting Father Involvement study: A cross-cultural preventive intervention for low-income families with young children. Journal of Social Service Research, 35(2), 163-179.