Former education minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh recently suggested that fathers being more active in their children’s lives can stem school violence and other social ills. This is both true and misleading.
That absent fathers correlate with a host of dysfunctional behaviours among children is not in dispute. These include poor academic performance, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, delinquency and criminal activity.
This has proved true in many societies, including Trinidad and Tobago. Yet one newspaper editorial, rejecting Dr Gopeesingh’s argument, even stated that ‘Children who come from twoparent nuclear households can still suffer if they cannot afford education.’
In fact, the data show that young people from at-risk neighbourhoods (and Tobago) who perform well academically usually do come from two-parent homes.
A parliamentary report on Port of Spain schools published last November found that, among ‘contributory factors influencing achievement of public primary and secondary schools’, the lack of parental involvement and interest in learning about parenting were key. (The report can be downloaded at http://www.ttparliament.org/reports/ p12-s2-J-20211112-HRED-R1.pdf).
At the same time, rigorous studies find that the individual home plays little or no part in shaping children’s social values or broad life outcomes (barring extreme conditions like criminal violence or child abuse).
How to resolve this apparent paradox?
Put simply, parental culture influences children’s behaviour-ie, children look to adults who are not their parents to decide what is right or wrong.
Thus, public policies that impact parental choices can undermine or support father-present homes.
In the United States, for example, welfare policies, cheap contraception and no-fault divorce laws correlated with a sudden increase in single-mother households in the 1960s and 1970s.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the trajectory was different, with children born out of wedlock dropping from over 50 per cent in the 1950s to under 20 per cent by the 1980s.
Thus, factors other than absent fathers account for the rise in crime that started in the 1970s and which spiked in the early 2000s.
These included the creation of URP (first called the Special Works Project), the introduction of a shift system in the junior secondary schools, and the funnelling of State funds to ‘community leaders’.
Changing such policies would almost certainly reduce criminal violence. Whether it would improve family dynamics remains an open question.