dossier publikaties Joep Zander

Is fatherhood a scientific problem?

About unsocial non-science in the Low Countries

Joep Zander; In search of fatherhood november 2003


The more fathers care, the more problems they encounter. Not surprising for a society that has focused on motherhood for over hundred years. Why do Dutch scientists deny and ignore these problems around fatherhood? What are the consequences for children and fathers? Is fatherhood a problem for science or is science a problem for fatherhood?

"Sometimes it is in the interest of the children to forego contact for one or two years no matter how difficult that may sometimes be for the father. Therefore my most important message is: do your utmost to keep communication open with your ex-wife and kowtow to her if necessary. If you continue to quarrel, it will become difficult. Take care that your ex can find no excuse for complaints."Ed Spruijt, a sociologist at the University of Utrecht, who made this statement in a manual for divorced dads (1), has yet to show research to make it plausible that discontinuation of contact could lead in any way to the restoration of the father-child contact. Conflicts between separated parents are most likely to extend way beyond the issues of child-father contact, e.g. on spousal support, child support, change of surname, accusations on stalking or child abuse. And what is achieved by the proposed kowtowing? It is a fact that many fathers are accused of abandoning their children. To the extent that this is a correct accusation, such abandonment can only be exacerbated by this kind of statement. It can hardly lead to more parental care by fathers. In conclusion: from Spruijt no science, but biased opinion.

"When you, prior to partner separation, already spent more care-giving time with your children, there is a greater chance for continuation of the father-child-relationship." "Marvellous side effect of the advancing emancipation (2) ", scored the "Opzij" (3) . Fatherhood researcher Duindam (4) supports his statement by references to two research papers. In one of the papers such an association is simply not reported; the other shows on closer inspection that quite to the contrary a classic parental role model results in a greater probability for continuation of paternal contact. The latter is more in line with a much of the research in other countries. The research cited by Duindam conceptualises care giving by the father in terms of traditional fatherhood care such as visiting the school and discussing with the mother any problems associated with the children, rather than the physical care giving such as feeding and nappy changing. In short: from Duindam no sciences here, but politically correct statements that are favourably received in the media.

Even if the father behaves within the classical parenting norms and does not interfere "excessively" with the children, the probability that he will become estranged from his children is between 35 and 50 %, as is found in almost all international research, including research in the Netherlands (5). Even when there is contact, it is unsatisfactory in an additional 25% of the cases. Nonetheless, "the great majority of the parents manage to arrange the issues around the children well after the divorce", is a popular statement of child protection officers. In this they are supported by the research group SIN (Divorce in the Netherlands) (6). According to their surveys, only 14% of the fathers would no longernot see their children after divorce. Why is this score so low in this important survey? Fathers, who do not see their children anymore, appear to be disinclined to communicate with society, including avoiding completion of scientific questionnaires. In short, the final set of respondents in the SIN-survey was unrepresentative of the target group of the research. Only after there had been publicity about this survey in, among others, the Volkskrant (7) , resulting in criticism by the author of this article, was a weighing factor introduced and the statements of the limited group of divorced male parents in the set of questionnaires received a more realistic weight. However statements of persons without contact with their children are still underrepresented. Possibly even more so than prior to inserting the weighing factor for under representation of divorced male parents. By introducing the weighing factor for correcting the under representation of all divorced parents, the weight of all divorced parents without contacts with their children may have been reduced even further. In addition, the researchers did not differentiate for gender in their corrective weighing of the questionnaire response. It is also astonishing that the authors of the publication did not discuss why their figures of non-contact were substantially lower than those in comparable research both in the Netherlands and internationally. Nonetheless this parochial and unscientific survey is the foundation of many Dutch policy papers such as one on child support (8). The correct approach to research on child-parent relationships would be to design a systematic or random sample survey starting from the child and subsequently establishing the relationships of the child with its biological parents and stepparents.

Often it is assumed that child protection officers and scientists would be above the interests of the directly involved parents. Parents are suspected of putting their own interest first, rather than those of their children. However, child protection officers and scientists have their own economic, emotional and image interests, that are often difficult to reconcile with the interests of the child. The rationalizations of the child protection officers often fail to recognize the heartfelt bond between children and parents. The law also recognizes an a priori unalienable interest of both the child and the parent in a relationship with each other. The Dutch child protection agency that suffers from its negative image especially among the other primary health care and social services, loves hiring publicity consultants and scientists. They should then persuade citizens of the correct ideas through promotional activities supported by research based on biased survey data. There are always scientists ready to say what their paymaster wants to hear, the more so as they become increasingly dependent on external funding. In medical research we are alert to undue influence by research sponsors. Social scientists are often given a free hand and are more difficult to monitor.

Recently the Dutch child protection agency (Ministry of Justice) has commissioned two research projects. One is a survey on the practices in reporting and investigating by the child protection agency was outsourced to the Free (9) University (Amsterdam). In this survey the employees of the agency were given a free hand in selecting the reports in the survey. The whole exercise was chaperoned by a steering committee with members who maintain economic ties with the agency. Nonetheless the result of such a biased outlook is presented to the minister (of justice) and the public as if it were reliable research (10).

In the second the sociologist Spruijt was hired for a literature review on recent scientific developments on children and divorce, such as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). A steering committee consisting exclusively of employees of the child protection agency was overseeing the reviewer. The literature references in the review appear rather arbitrary. For example, a magazine article (authored by a member of the steering committee) is cited to counter the harsh criticism by Professor G.P. Hoefnagels (11) on the reporting practices of the child protection agency. A fine example of "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", but not of science.

When you compare the confidence that the Dutch have in the press, politics and science, it appears that science scores well. Rightly so? Statements of much talked about scientists appear less and less the result of arguments and research, but more of being turned on by publicity, financial interests (funding of new projects) and personal biases. Given the conflicting interests around fatherhood issues, the tax paying public may expect from the academic researcher an ethical code of conduct including critical distance from the paymaster of the research and an open debate in public and among peers about the findings of the sponsored research. The doublethink in dealing with fatherhood (care, but don't dare to give it) is fed by a complex of stakeholders including scientist, attorneys, social workers and civil servants preserving the dysfunctional family law system and preventing a healthy development towards shared parenting.

Joep Zander

Translated by Hein van Gils (7-10-03)

1 Duindam, V. and Vroom, M. (2001). Een nieuwe start; handboek voor gescheiden vaders. (A new start; manual for divorced fathers). Van Gennep, Amsterdam: p. 105

2 E. Buseman. (2002). Dwaze vaders contra dwarse moeders? (Mad fathers contra obstructing mothers). In Dutch. Opzij 7; p. 61

3 Opzij is the name of the largest feminist monthly magazine in the Netherlands

4 Duindam, V. (2000). Op elkaar aangewezen; kinderen en ouders na echtscheiding. In: Nijnatten, C. van and Sevenhuijsen, S. Dubbelleven; nieuwe perspectieven voor kinderen na echtscheiding. (Double life; new perspectives for children after divorce). Thela Thersis Amsterdam: p. 59

Germany has a similar high number of broken contacts between child and father; in the UK the figure reaches 43% within 5 years after divorce; in France 34% after divorce

6 Catholic University Tilburg (NL) code book SIN (DIN)

7 Volkskrant is the name of one of the largest daily newspapers in the Netherlands

8 Ministry of Social Affairs & Science (2002). Het kind centraal; verantwoordelijkheid blijft. (The child in the center; responsibility remains). In Dutch.

9 Free refers historically to free (independent) from the Federal State, Province, Municipality and (Catholic) Church.

10 Rooijen, C. van (2002. Divorced, still bonded. Survey of the working practices in divorce cases by the child protection agency (Dutch). Free University, Amsterdam.

11 Hoefnagels, G.P. (1996). Opstellen over rapportage. (Essays on reporting). In Dutch. Van Gorcum, Assen. Hoefnagels is a retired professor of family law.


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