Social Father Presence: The Experience of Being Raised by Black Social Fathers.

AuthorMcDougal, Serie, III


What does it mean to be present or absent? The word absent refers to a lack of presence or being away, whereas presence is being located in a particular place. Absence may also be used to identify a state of inattentiveness or distraction, while presence can also refer to being focused or aware. Black children experience a variety of fathering types. Yet, current research on Black fathers has generated a great deal of awareness about notions of father absence, with frequent references to father absent homes and the fatherless children who live in them. This absence paradigm can have a tendency of focusing primarily on family structure and household composition in efforts to explain Black children's relationships to their fathers (White & Cones, 1999). Such research has given insufficient attention to family organization, father-child relationships, and how well Black fathers meet children's needs for social and emotional security (White & Cones, 1999). Fathers may be absent from homes, yet have varying degrees of presence in their children's lives. The terms, absence or non-residence are often assumed to be indicators of fathers' levels of involvement with their children, this may be true for some fathers and a vast overgeneralization for others. This is in part because the idea of absence, often ignores the role of non-resident fathers (Franklin, 2004). African American fathers are often involved in their children's lives regardless of their residential status at higher levels than other ethnic groups (Doyle, Clark, Cryer-Coupet, Nebbitt, & Goldston, et al., 2015). Non-custodial parentage is inappropriately assumed to indicate irresponsibility in ways that do not reflect some families' realities (Coles, 2009). Not only are non-resident fathers ignored, so are non-biological fathers.

Seventy-three percent of African American youth are born to unwed mothers and 67% will spend some part of their childhood living in a single-parent household, compared with 23% of the general population (Parent, Jones, Forehand, Cuellar, & Shoulberg, 2013). Moreover, divorced and unmarried parents are likely to spend some time entering and exiting romantic relationships. Consequently, it is estimated that one third of children in the United States will spend some time living with a social parent (non-biological parent) during their childhood; others may be parented by non-resident social parents (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2004). Social fathers can be resident or non-resident stepfathers, mothers' romantic partners, grandfathers, uncles, and many other family associates who demonstrate parental behavior and act as fathers or father figures to a child (Letiecq & Koblinsky, 2004). This social trend calls for a reappraisal of the notions of father absence and fatherlessness in light of the involvement of social fathers. Stereotypes of fathers as uninvolved, Black children as fatherless, and lack of research about the impact of Black social fathers, may generate a kind of absence or distraction, and inattentiveness in the research community with regard to the range of fathering experiences that Black children have. This particular investigation is about the experiences and perspectives of Black people who were raised by Black social fathers. Given the presence of Black social fathers in Black children's lives, it is important that the research community studies the ways they impact Black children's lives. Lack of research about how Black people are affected by social fathering, can leave the mental health and social service community ill equipped to anticipate the challenges they are likely to encounter and effect the way of sustaining healthy relationships and resolving unhealthy ones. Empirical research on the impact of different kinds of social fathers on Black people can provide a knowledge base for effective family advocacy of different types, including family therapy.

Literature Review

There is little research on the impact that social fathers have on children, and less on the impact of Black social fathers on Black children. Generally, social father involvement has been linked to child outcomes such as less behavioral problems, better overall health, greater school readiness, and better cognitive skills (Letiecq, 2010; Hattery, & Smith, 2014). Coley (2003) investigated the role of biological and social fathers in the lives of low-income adolescent African American girls. This research highlights that the mere presence of fathers in daughters' lives is not the most important factor, instead, it is the quality of the daughter-father relationships which is most central. Coley (2003) found that 65% of her sample of 302 girls had someone who fulfilled a primary fathering role, including biological (41%) and social fathers (24%). Among girls who identified the presence of biological fathers, most reported stronger attachments to social fathers compared to biological fathers (Coley, 2003). Coley (2003) found that the more father-daughter relationships were characterized by anger and alienation, girls experienced increased amount of problems in school. When fathers are inaccessible and lack responsiveness to daughters, daughters may disengage emotionally.

Coley (2003) theorizes that social fathers may be able to develop more warm relationships with children due to their not being expected to take on all of the responsibilities that biological fathers are and not being constrained by typical adolescent-parent difficulties. In addition to impacting education, health, and behavioral outcomes, social fathering can also affect mother-child relationships. Parent, Jones, Forehand, Cuellar, and Shoulberg (2013) investigated the role of coparents in African American single parent families. Coparents are adults or family members who engage in child-rearing. Social fathers, a category of coparents, can help mothers provide warmth, support and monitoring for their children. Outcomes of their parenting typically depend on the quality of their relationships and high quality coparenting was found to be associated with higher quality mother-child relationships and less problem behavior from youth (Parent, Jones, Forehand, Cuellar, and Shoulberg, 2013).

Although mothers' romantic partners frequently find themselves in the position of being social fathers, several other social father types have received minimal attention from the research community: uncles, coaches, and grandfathers. Richardson (2009) investigated the roles that uncles play as social fathers in the lives of African American male youth in the inner city. He found that they play socially supportive roles, especially in the absence of biological parents. In some cases, particularly when biological fathers are not present, uncles, a vital part of the family system, sometimes step in and help to foster positive development and usher Black youth into adulthood by providing effective and instrumental support (Richardson, 2009). Black male coaches have a long tradition in the Black community, serving as father figures for Black youth, particularly Black male youth. Richardson (2012) investigated the role that Black male coaches play in the lives of Black male youth and single parents in high risk neighborhoods. Black male coaches were found to be a critical source of social capital for Black male youth, guiding them toward positive outcomes and reducing involvement in crime and delinquency. Richardson (2012) found that basketball was a safe-haven and a buffer from violence for many Black males in high risk neighborhoods. In his study, sports participation exposed Black males to adults, it was a prosocial means for them to acquire respect and academic enrichment in the forms of SAT preparation, visits to colleges and universities, homework assistance, and drug/violence prevention workshops. Coaches themselves taught values such as social responsibility, respect for elders, hard work, self-control, and anti-drug use and anti-violence attitudes (Richardson, 2012). According to Nobles (2006), elders hold a special position in African American families. As he states, "They represent the keepers of the family's heritage and the repository of the family's heritage and the repository of the family's history and accordingly have been given respect for their insights and guidance in matters of the family" (Nobles, 2006, p.176). Black grandfathers are an integral part of that extended family network. In many different African philosophies, there is the belief in the closeness between children and grandparents, as children have just come from the same spiritual world that the elder will soon transition to (Hill, 2014). Furthermore, Black grandfathers make important contributions to healthy Black families (Smith, 2010).

The present study is an attempt to add to the current literature on Black fathers by exploring how Black people are affected by the presence of social fathers. It is important to explain how Black people come to experience Black social fathering and how they negotiate challenges in those relationships. The main question guiding this investigation is "What are the experiences and perspectives of Black people who have had social fathers in their lives?". The primary sub questions guiding this study are:

  1. How do participants come to recognize non-biological fathers as fathers or father-figures?

  2. How are participants affected by the experience of social fathering?

  3. How would they compare their relationships with their biological fathers to that of their non- biological fathers?

  4. What, if any, difficulties do participants encounter with social fathers given their non-biological father statuses?

  5. How, if at all, do participants' relationships with their social fathers change over time?


There are many different models for approaching the study of Black families. This investigation is conceptually guided by the Africanity model of investigating Black...

To continue reading

Request your trial