Absent Father Impact on Child’s Education


This study is to determine if there is a significant relationship between paternal absence and negative outcomes on cognitive and social development. The focus is on adolescent males aged 8-16 years attending public schools living at home with a parent or guardian. Investigation of literature led to studies the examined outcomes for children with parents who are absent due to a variety of reasons such as imprisonment, divorce, or long hours working. The literature also highlighted psychological and educational issues among children with absent fathers.

The study employs a variety of measures including grade point average, survey self-reporting, caregiver reporting, and scores from the Wechsler Intelligence Test for Children. The study uses a quantitative correlational design with stratified random sampling for the selection of participants. The study controls for economic factors to avoid confounds from the impact of poverty on development. Further, societal factors were also controlled for to avoid similar confounding.

The study found that through use of the Wechsler test there is an observable difference with school competence for the students from a father absent household when compared to the students with a fatherly presence in the home. The test was found to provide more significant results than the flat measure comparison of grade point average among the participants.

However, the social impacts of paternal absence were found to be much less significant than the cognitive aspects. Further research should be done to provide a more definitive analysis on the impacts of paternal absence on social ability and behavior. The significance of the cognitive impacts is in line with the prior research despite differences in methods with this study. The factors that affect social development being found to be less significant could be due to a variety of reasons such as potential confounds this study did not adequately address.


The factors that impact the development of a child could potentially be significant for determining how they could fare into adulthood as well as how they interact with the world around them. One possible factor that may impact the cognitive development of a child could be the make-up of his or her familial unit. The family is the first contextual environment a child may have for their development, down the line other factors such as socioeconomics or cultural values will have an impact, but the first stage of development is one in which this study hopes to address. So, during this first stage is it crucial to the success of the individual? It must be determined what could possibly disrupt development at this point.

The aim of this study is to determine the disruptive effect on cognitive and social development, if any exists, if the familial structure is subject to the absence of a parental figure. Specifically, could there be an impact on social or cognitive development in school-aged boys in families where the father is absent?

Literature Review

Life Control  

Adverse outcomes for children with fathers absent from the home can be found in most developed nations, per the result of the study conducted by Radl, Salazar, and Cebolla-Boada (2017).  In this study, emphasis was placed on the idea of locus of control, the belief that events in life have a causal relationship with actions one takes in their life, with the purpose of measuring what was stated by Radl to be an important non-cognitive skill. Similarities exist with other studies in this area. Specifically, the research is similar to the findings of participant interviews conducted in Australia by East, Jackson, Power, Woods, and Hutchinson with a series of men ages 18-25 (2014). In their study, participants stated that the absence of their fathers was a large influence on their decisions and general life courses. This could provide a window into the social attitudes of young men living without a father figure. However, for clarity it should be stated that the study conducted by Radl, et al. used a quantitative approach whereas the study conducted by East, et al. used a lived experience qualitative approach.


Two of the research studies consulted examined the issue of paternal abandonment due to incarceration. Parental imprisonment is a risk factor for child criminal behavior, mental illness issues, and failure in school. Children with an imprisoned parent are significantly more likely to have failed academically and more likely to have dropped out of school altogether than their peers according to The Effects of Parental Imprisonment on Children study conducted by Joseph Murray and David P. Farrington (2008).

Significant evidence of an increase in aggressive behaviors and attention issues exists within populations of children living with paternal absence due to incarceration as well as significant evidence of an impact on a child’s wellbeing that was found in Beyond Absenteeism: Father Incarceration and Child Development by Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, and Mincy (2011). To note, the former study used caregiver reporting for their measures while the latter acquired their data through the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a population-based sample of urban children.

Family Impacts

Through the research, there is much discussion on exactly when during childhood does the absence of a parent lead to a negative outcome for the child. For example, The Causal Effects of Father Absence by McLanahan, Tach, and Schneider (2013) found divorce during early childhood and adolescence is associated with worse outcomes than with divorce during middle childhood. However, the findings of a study by Markowitz and Ryan (2016) discovered that there is little effect on early in life departure on adolescent outcomes. Though, it is possible the difference is due to circumstance, the study by McLanahan, et al. specifies the findings in the context of divorce and the Markowitz and Ryan study is concerned with depression and delinquency with no specification involving divorce. Whether the difference is significant depends on the outcome that is being observed.

A similar study conducted by Matthew Weinshenker (2018) related to the presence or lack thereof of a father due to shift work, found that father engagement with the child positively affects cognitive ability of a child when the father works during the day and is available at night when the mother has a fixed night or evening shift. Thus, the findings are similar, that early childhood experiences influence outcomes, but, other factors must be carefully considered to determine the extent.


Much of the explored research is concerned with educational outcomes specifically. A study conducted in Quebec, Canada by Pougnet, Serbin, Stack, and Schwartzman (2011) concerned with father presence and its relation cognitive and behavioral functioning, found that a father’s presence in his children’s home has a positive association with cognitive outcomes across time, even when controlling for socioeconomic factors. The study notes the positive parental control shown by fathers predicted higher Performance IQ and fewer instances of internalizing problems such as social withdrawal, anxiety, and sadness.

Another study conducted by Meghan T. Gillette and Clinton G. Gudmunson (2013) addressed the issue of attaining higher education in a father absent home by pointing to the loss of income from a father leaving as a non-normative life event that contributes to living in a low-income household that makes it difficult to afford college as well as impacting the desire to attend. The study also indicates that the absence of a father means a household is less likely to provide a good home learning environment and an absence of transmission of educational expectations.

Economic Impact

There exists in the research discussion of the way income may affect consequences on children living without a father. This applies in both the loss of income from a parent leaving the household as well as the low-income realities in which these families may already live. The Pougnet et al. study (2011) illustrates the relationship between students attending public schools in economically disadvantaged areas and likelihood of graduation and compared it to students attending public schools in what they designate as non-disadvantaged areas. This emphasis on economic issues is also seen in the Gillette and Gudmunson study (2013) that notes the relationship between household income and desire to attend college. Though, that study does indicate the possibility that economic pressure is an independent effect that may not fully relate to educational aspirations. Further, this possibility is supported by the findings of McLanahan, et al. (2013) that problem behaviors rather than cognitive ability is what influences attainment of education. A study conducted by Kammi Schmeer (2009) discussed that in the case of father absence due to migration in Mexico, the father moving away may lead to the provision of more economic resources to the family back home. The studies observing the economic issues facing these families emphasize taking great care to avoid the potential confound in the scenario as it relates to how a child would fare.

Psychological Impacts

A consistent subject in the research is the observation of psychological impacts stemming from parental absence. A study by Kim A. Jones (2008) observes the impact of father absence using a psychoanalytic approach. In this study, it is found that patients interviewed by Jones report issues with identity, self-esteem, intimacy, and control over behaviors. This is like the experience shown by the participants in a study by Janette Kostos and Catherine Flynn (2012) where there was an observed commonality of risk factors for negative outcomes. Much like in the Jones study, participants had mental health issues among those being substance abuse, anti-social behavior, and lack of trust as well as other issues pertaining to their relationships with others. Similar issues are also found in the previously discussed study by East, et al. (2014) with participants reporting self-esteem, anger, and trust issues. The East study also indicated that the participants felt as though they missed out on activities as children without a father to encourage their participation. The Markowitz and Ryan study (2016) affirmed the other findings with reports of substance abuse as well as internalizing symptoms such as depression as anxiety. The study conducted by McLanahan et al. (2013) found strong evidence of impacts on social-emotional development due to the absence of a father. The Murray and Farrington study (2008) also lists substance abuse and anti-social behavior as issues affecting children with an absent parent like in Markowitz and Ryan’s (2016) study which is also found in the Kostos and Flynn study (2012).


The purpose of the research being conducted is to answer the following questions: does the absence of a father have significant, lifelong impacts on an individual? To what extent can parental absence be linked to emotional issues in childhood? Is there an effect on cognitive development or educational success on boys facing paternal absence? These questions lead to a hypothesis. This study is proposing that the absence of a father has a strong relationship with cognitive difficulties in children during their education.

The study takes a quantitative correlational design approach to determine a relationship between living without a father and academic and social ability in school aged boys. The absence of the father could be due to death, divorce, separation, or incarceration.


The studied demographic is young boys aged 8-16 attending public schools in the United States. Participants live at home with a mother or other legal guardian. For the purpose of comparison, a sample of boys the same age living with both parents was also taken. Participants were used from urban, suburban, and rural public schools. There were no races specified for desired participants. This was done to avoid confounding data due to systemic racial issues or population measures.

Primarily, the participants are of middle and lower-class backgrounds, but a few come from a higher socioeconomic class. Economics were considered to avoid confounds that could produce a similar effect on participants as the other measures studied. Participants were not volunteering but randomly selected via student ID number cross referenced with census data. Participants could withdraw at any point if they wished.


A stratified random sampling method was utilized in the design of the study. A sample of 500 students was taken and then sorted into two categories of 250 each for comparison: children with absent fathers and children with present fathers. Absent father meaning the father is not living at home due to divorce, separation, death, or incarceration. As stated previously, participants were preliminarily selected using census data and student ID numbers selected at random. Participants were further narrowed down due to declining invitation to the study from the parents. The size of the sample was carefully considered to not be so small that a conclusion could not be drawn but also not too large to possibly risk overrepresenting that would be detrimental to the study. Careful ethical considerations are of great importance given the ages of the participants. The sampling process as well as the study itself were done with the permission and participation of caregivers, teachers, counselors, and representatives of the relevant school boards.


To restate, the aim of the study is to identify if a relationship exists between father absence and academic and social ability in boys between the ages of 8-16. The two groups were one group of participants living without a father and the second group of participants with a father actively in their lives. The first set of data that was examined once the groups were decided was overall grade point average. It was insured that this measure was tiered by age to avoid conflicts with the data. The next step in the study was to issue the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (2014). The use of this testing instrument allows for a more precise measure of the participant’s academic capabilities. As with the GPA measure, results were tiered by age.

The next stage was to issue questionnaires to participants about their behavior. Participants were asked to self-report about their experiences with aggression and social withdrawal. Aggression in this study is defined as physical or non-physical actions that create negative consequences toward others. Aggressive behavior includes hitting, kicking, biting, spitting, shoving, or unwanted physical contact. It also includes non-physical acts such as yelling, teasing, mocking, cursing, or purposefully excluding someone from a social activity. It does not include wanted actions such as hugging or high-fiving. Social withdrawal would include avoiding classmates or peers, isolation of themselves, avoiding family, ignoring people speaking to them, not participating in group play time, or purposely sitting alone during meal periods. This does not include instances of disciplinary actions such as time-out, suspension, or detention. It must be noted that participants were asked about instances of disciplinary actions specifically. To try to eliminate bias, the same questionnaire was issued to the guardians of the participants about instances of behavior observed. To quantify the questionnaires, questions operated on a five-degree scale that was preceded with a statement. When prompted with a question, participants could choose strongly agree (represented by the number one), agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, and strongly disagree (represented by the number five). The average response from each question was noted but was not tiered via age as with previous measures. The results were drawn for comparison to see if there was a significant difference between the group of participants with absent fathers and the group of participants with a present father.


The aim of this research was to discover a link between the absence of a father in a home and delays in cognitive or social functioning. Prior research on this topic had difficulty in establishing the exact impact between children being raised in an absent father home and their performance in school and in social scenarios. Much of the prior research were studies of a longitudinal design. This study attempts to accelerate the process by using a diverse set of age groups. Hopefully, with the experimental design and instruments, the expectations are that the link between father absence and development will be supported in a more significant fashion than prior studies.


The biggest possible barrier for this research to face as with previous studies is controlling for socioeconomic confounds, specifically poverty. All previous studies on this topic discussed the socioeconomic factors that could produce similar effects on certain populations. This was taken into heavy consideration throughout the course of conducting research. Many of the participants of the study lived in lower income brackets than the general population which provided some challenge for quantifying the data. Ethics are an important consideration in this study as well. Given the age of the participants, great care must be taken. Steps were taken to insure transparency of the questions. All steps were taken in concert with the permission of parents, legal guardians, teachers, and school administration. Participants could refuse to answer certain questions or withdraw from participating all together if needed. Bias is also a concern. Using self-reporting measures are prone to omission or alteration of answers. There is also a concern for bias with the guardians that were also reporting due to emotional connection or fear of judgement. Economics were also considered as participants that are living in poverty could influence the outcome of the study if it is not considered as a potential confound. Race is possibly another confound. Non-Caucasian participants could face issues that Caucasian participants may not so steps to insure a truly representative sample must be taken. In the future, further studies could examine the role of economics and racial dynamics on cognitive and social function and educational success.

Works Cited

  • East, L., Jackson, D., Power, T., Woods, A., & Hutchinson, M. (2014). “Holes in my Memories”: A Qualitative Study of Men Affected by Father Absence . Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 604-612.
  • Geller, A., Cooper, C. E., Garfinkel, I., Schwartz-Soicher, O., & Mincy, R. B. (2012). Beyond Absenteeism: Father Incarceration and Child Development. Demography, 49-76.
  • Gillette, M. T., & Gudmunson, C. G. (2013). Processes Linking Father Absence to Educational Attainment Among African American Females. Journal of Research on Adolescence , 309-321.
  • Jones, K. A. (2008). Assessing The Impact of Father-Absence from a Psychoanalytic Perspective. Psychoanalytic Social Work, 43-58.
  • Kostos, J., & Flynn, C. (2012). Father Absence: Exploring The Experiences of Young People in Regional Western Australia. Children Australia, 170-176.
  • Markowitz, A. J., & Ryan, R. M. (2016). Father Absence and Adolescent Depression and Delinquency: A Comparison of Siblings Approach. Journal of Marriage and Family, 1300-1314.
  • McLanahan, S., Tach, L., & Schneider, D. (2013). The Causal Effects of Father Absence . The Annual Review of Sociology, 399-244.
  • Murray, J., & P, F. D. (2008). The Effects of Parental Imprisonment on Children. Crime and Justice, 133-150.
  • Pougnet, E., Serbin, L. A., Stack, D. M., & Schwartzman, A. E. (2011). Fathers’ Influence on Children’s Cognitive and Behavioural Functioning: A Longitudinal Study of Canadian Families. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 173-182.
  • Radl, J., Salazar, L., & Cebolla-Doado, H. (2017). Does Living in a Fatherless Household Compromise Educational Success? A Comparative Study. European Journal of Population, 217-242.
  • Schmeer, K. (2009). Father Absence Due to Migration and Child Illness in Rural Mexico. Social Science and Medicine , 1281-1286.
  • Wechsler, D. (2014). Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Fifth Edition.
  • Weinshenker, M. (2018). Shift Work, Father Engagement, and the Cognitive Development of Young Children. Community, Work, & Family, 133-150.


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