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Teen attitudes predict absentee fathers

by Lindsay Jolivet Mar 24 / 16

Teenage boys’ knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about sex predict whether they will become absentee fathers, a new study has found.

Men who held risky attitudes about sex in their teens were more likely to become fathers sooner, and less likely to live with their children as adults. The tell-tale signs included knowing less about how to use birth control, and believing that getting someone pregnant might not be a terrible outcome. At-risk teens were also more likely to answer yes to questions such as whether having sex would help them feel less lonely, or gain them respect from their friends.

The study surveyed young men as teens and followed them into early adulthood, asking them if they were fathers and if they lived with their children.

Thom McDade (Northwestern University), a fellow in the Child & Brain Development program and a co-author on the study, says he was surprised by the strength of the correlation.

“It really does suggest that knowledge and attitudes matter to subsequent behaviour with respect to sexuality and the transition to parenthood. It also suggests a very good opportunity for intervention in the sense that education could have an effect on these outcomes.”

The findings show the importance of ensuring adolescents feel comfortable using contraception and understand the consequences of becoming a parent before they are ready, McDade says. But influencing the attitudes of young men poses particular challenges. They tend to be healthy and they use health care services less than any other demographic.

“Almost all the research is on women and their attitudes and knowledge around birth control and sexuality and how that matters to their own fertility decision-making,” McDade says. “Very little is known about men with respect to these processes.”

But he says that having the knowledge and confidence to make smart decisions about their sexuality is good for the men and their future families. “There’s a lot of research emerging now, and a lot of it is done by the senior author on this paper, Craig Garfield, showing that having the father around is good for the partner, and it’s good for the baby,” McDade says.

Future research may investigate the best ways to engage young men who are at risk of becoming fathers earlier, or being distant from their children. The study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.