A team of researchers in Britain examined the effects of father’s presence in a sample of 1,116 5-year-old same-sex twin pairs. The sample was selected so that one-third of the children were from “high-risk” families due to the mother having had her first child before she was 21 years old.

History of antisocial behavior in both the father and mother was obtained by maternal interview using the Young Adult Behavior Checklist and the Young Adult Self-Report, precursors of the ABCL and the ASR (Achenbach & Rescorla, 2003), plus some additional questions from diagnostic interviews. Child conduct problems were assessed by the Aggressive and Delinquent (now Rule-Breaking) syndromes on the CBCL and the TRF, as well as by some additional DSM-IV items.

Fathers high in antisocial behavior (>85th percentile in the distribution) resided with their children less, spent less time in caretaking, and were less likely to have married the children’s mother. Mothers of children fathered by highly antisocial men were higher in self-reported antisocial behavior than mothers whose children had been fathered by men low in antisocial behavior.

This pattern of assortative mating was also demonstrated by the correlation of .53 between mothers’ and fathers’ antisocial behavior. The most dramatic result of the study was that more presence in the home and more involvement with the child were associated with higher child conduct problem scores if the father was high in antisocial behavior. In contrast, when fathers scored below the 35th percentile in antisocial behavior, more presence in the home and more caretaking involvement were associated with lower child conduct problem scores.

The authors concluded (p. 120) that, among those whose fathers “engage in very high levels of antisocial behavior, children have the worst behavior problems when the father resides in the home.” Conversely, among those whose fathers engage in little antisocial behavior, “children whose fathers have never resided with the family have the most behavior problems.” In other words, “children do not always benefit from growing up in two-parent families. A narrow focus on family structure without a parallel focus on who is raising the children may do more harm than good” (p. 123).

Reference: Jaffe, S.R., Moffitt, T.E., Caspi, A., & Taylor, A. (2003). Life with (or without) father: The benefits of living with two biological parents depend on the father’s antisocial behavior. Child Development, 74, 109-126.