Parents can have an important influence on their children's sexual behaviors. For example, both close, supportive parent-child relationships and parental monitoring and supervision are associated with delayed sexual activity among children.1–7 However, evidence linking parent-child communication about sex with delayed sexual initiation is mixed.8 The effectiveness of such communication may depend on a range of factors, including the gender of the parent and the child, the level of connection between parent and child, the parent's attitudes toward adolescent sex and the parent's ability to discuss sexuality openly and comfortably.9
Most research on parents' influence on their children's sexual behaviors has focused either on mothers or on parents in general, without distinguishing between mothers and fathers. As a result, relatively little is known about the role of fathers in protecting their children from sexual risk, including premature sexual activity and the potential negative consequences of sex (e.g., pregnancy, STDs). Some studies have shown that affection and support from fathers (including nonresident fathers) are important to adolescents' overall positive development and well-being.10,11 More specifically, a few studies have found that adolescents who have close relationships with their fathers or stepfathers tend to delay sexual activity5,7 and report less positive attitudes toward having sex during adolescence.12
In addition, studies that have collected data about both mothers and fathers have shown that communication about sex frequently falls along gender lines: Fathers are more likely to talk about sexuality with their sons than with their daughters, while mothers are more likely to talk with their daughters than with their sons.8,13,14 However, mothers are the predominant communicators about sexuality for both sons and daughters.8,13,15
Little research has investigated fathers' own perspectives on their role in communicating with their children about sex. One exception is a qualitative study by Kirkman and colleagues, who found that although fathers of 12–14-year-olds in Australia feel a responsibility to talk to their children about sex, many have great difficulty having such conversations, particularly with their daughters.16 A previous analysis of data from the present study revealed that mothers and fathers generally have similar motivations to talk to their children about sex and similar perceptions of the factors that hinder or facilitate those discussions.17 For example, both mothers and fathers believe that talking to their children about sex is important, but find the discussions difficult because they do not know how to talk about sex. A few differences in mothers' and fathers' perspectives emerged, however. For example, fathers are more likely than mothers to say that forbidding children to have sex just makes them more curious about it.
The objective of the current analysis is to explore fathers' views of their roles in protecting their preteenage children from sexual risk and promoting their healthy sexual development. We used data from focus groups conducted with mothers and fathers of children aged 10–12. The findings can be used to develop more effective interventions to support fathers in this role and to suggest where future research is needed.
This study was conducted as part of an evaluation of the Parents Speak Up National Campaign, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The objective of the campaign is to encourage parents of preteenagers and teenagers to talk to their children early and often about delaying sexual activity. The campaign includes television, radio and print ads; a Web site; and activities organized by outreach centers in numerous locations across the country.
We conducted focus group discussions with parents or guardians of children aged 10–12. We focused on this age-group because of the campaign's objective of encouraging parents to talk to their children before they are likely to have initiated sexual activity. The groups were conducted in October–November 2007 in three cities chosen to reflect a range of sizes and regions: Denver, New York and Raleigh, North Carolina. Sixteen focus groups were conducted, eight with fathers or male guardians, and eight with mothers or female guardians. A few of the mothers and fathers were from the same families, but most were not. Two mothers' groups and two fathers' groups were held for blacks, whites, English-speaking Hispanics and Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Groups ranged in size from six to 11 participants; the total number of participants was 131. The institutional review board of RTI International approved all study procedures.
Parents or guardians of a child aged 10–12 were eligible to participate if they had regular contact (at least four times a month) with the child. In Raleigh and Denver, we recruited most participants by telephone, using a listed sample of households known to include a child aged 10–12. Because telephone-based recruitment did not yield an adequate number of participants for the Spanish-speaking focus groups in Raleigh, this approach was supplemented by flyers, advertisements and contacts with local agencies. In New York, participants were recruited from databases maintained by the focus group facilities where the discussions were held.
Discussions took place on weeknights and lasted approximately 90 minutes. Participants provided written informed consent and were compensated $75 in Raleigh and Denver, and $100 in New York. An experienced moderator led the discussions using a semistructured guide. We developed the guide to explore parents' perceptions about the sexual risks confronting children and the factors that influence their communication with preteenage children about sex; it was informed by our familiarity with the literature on the topic and was reviewed by staff both within the project and at the U.S. Office of Population Affairs (the study's funder). Some questions (for both mothers and fathers) focused specifically on father-child discussions about sex, including the extent to which fathers talk with their children about sex, the reasons some fathers may not have such discussions, the importance of fathers' talking about sex and whether the child's sex influences these issues. In addition, participants were shown a 60-second version of one of the campaign's television ads and asked about their reactions. After the focus group discussion, parents filled out a brief questionnaire that included questions about social and demographic characteristics.
All discussions were recorded and transcribed verbatim. The discussions conducted in Spanish were translated into English. A team of three researchers developed a preliminary code book based on the topic domains and on themes that emerged in the discussions. To refine the code book and ensure consistency in coding, each researcher coded the transcript of a single focus group discussion using NVivo 8 software, and then all three discussed how they had coded each segment of text. On the basis of these discussions, the team revised the code book and developed a common understanding of the interpretation of the codes. This process was repeated with a second transcript. Each of the remaining 14 transcripts was then coded by one of the three researchers. Most of the results presented here are drawn from data from the eight fathers' groups; however, results are also presented from the mothers' discussion of fathers' roles in communicating with children about sex.
Fathers ranged in age from 29 to 58 (mean, 43). Their level of education was somewhat higher than the U.S. average: Thirty-eight percent had at least a college degree, compared with 28% of men aged 25 or older nationally.18 The proportion varied across focus groups, however, ranging from 0% among black fathers in New York to 75% among white fathers in Denver. Nearly half of the fathers (45%) had at least one child older than their preteenager. During the focus group discussions, fathers frequently referred to their experiences with their older children as well as with their preteenagers.
The majority of fathers (81%) belonged to intact nuclear families—that is, they were the biological father of their 10–12-year-old and lived in the same household as the child and the child's mother. (Nationally, the proportion of children aged 9–11 living in intact nuclear families is 70%.19) The remaining 19% either were their child's guardian (2%) or were biological fathers who were not living with the child's mother and had sole custody (5%), partial custody (9%) or no custody (3%) of the child. The proportion of fathers in intact nuclear families was lower in the New York groups (62–75%) than in the Denver and Raleigh groups (83–100%).
The social and demographic characteristics of mothers in the focus groups were generally similar to those of fathers, except that a much smaller proportion of the mothers belonged to intact nuclear families (59%).
The fathers in the focus groups were highly invested in their children's well-being and success in life, and they felt a responsibility to help their children in those areas. As one father explained:
“[Kids] need you. … They need an adult. We're the heroes! Superman! They need us to make sure that we make a path for them that's going to be safe, that they're going to be successful. That's our job.”—Black father, Raleigh
The fathers generally recognized that sexuality was an important part of their children's overall well-being and development, and that providing their children with guidance related to sex was a vital part of their responsibility. They described in detail their efforts to fulfill this responsibility, including the extent to which they communicated with their children about sex, the messages they conveyed, the strategies other than talking that they used to communicate these messages, differences in how they addressed their daughters' sexuality and their sons' sexuality, and the ways in which fathers' roles differed from mothers' (see box).
Roles in Communicating About Sexuality
Many respondents (both mothers and fathers) acknowledged that talking to children about intimate issues like sex was traditionally viewed as a mother's domain. Reasons suggested for this divide were that fathers “think their duty as a man is bringing home the money,” as one Spanish-speaking Hispanic mother from New York stated, whereas mothers were considered more nurturing and better communicators, and had closer relationships with their children—especially their daughters. One father reported:
“My girls … talk mostly to Mom, and I'm just sitting there, like sometimes I don’t even fit in.”—White father, Denver
Some fathers acknowledged that they had left to the mother the responsibility of communicating with their children about sex, but others said they were actively engaged in such discussions—either in addition to or instead of the mother. Parents of both genders sometimes commented that the roles fathers and mothers played had more to do with their individual personalities or the way they were brought up than it did with their gender. In some families, for example, the mother was too reserved or uncomfortable to discuss sexuality with their children, while the father was more open and at ease. One father commented:
“My wife does not talk about these things. She is very reserved. … I talk very easily with my son, but my wife does not.”—Spanish-speaking Hispanic father, Raleigh
Participants generally felt that it was important for fathers as well as mothers to talk to their children about sex, either because fathers could give their children a man's perspective or because children benefited from hearing two perspectives. One father explained:
“[My daughter] listens to what her mom says, but she wants to know what I think as a father, as a male. … She sees the two different approaches, and she starts putting the puzzle together.”—Spanish-speaking Hispanic father, Raleigh
Respondents reported that fathers' input was especially important on certain topics. For example, some said that fathers can talk to sons more easily than mothers can about issues related to puberty, such as wet dreams and erections, because they have had similar experiences, and they can explain to daughters how men think and feel about sex and relationships. However, participants added that other topics, such as menstruation, were better handled by mothers. A few mothers who were separated from their children's father were adamant that they did not want the father talking to their children about sex, because they disagreed with his perspectives or considered him a bad example.
Although some fathers had already spoken to their children about sex, others seemed not to have given the issue much thought. When asked, the latter fathers made clear that they thought talking to their children about sex was important, but that the issue had not been at the front of their minds. For some, being invited to participate in the study had focused their attention on the topic and prompted them to consider addressing the situation. For example, one father said:
“I don’t know if I ever brought it up with my son. I never thought about it until you guys called and [invited me to join this focus group]. Maybe this opens the door for me.”—English-speaking Hispanic father, Denver
For others, the experience of talking about their ideas and hearing from other fathers during the group discussion crystallized their motivation.
Topics of Discussion
Most common messages. What fathers meant when they said they had talked to their children about sex varied widely. Many said that they responded to issues as they arose—correcting any misinformation that their children may have heard and answering their children's questions. The topics fathers most commonly said they had addressed were the biology of reproduction, changes that occur during puberty, delaying sex and the potential negative consequences of sex.
Some fathers had talked with their children about anatomy and the biology of sex and reproduction from the time the children were young. As their children approached or reached puberty, some fathers had also talked, especially with their sons, about the bodily changes that occur. Reported one father:
“I just gave him some of the very mechanical, ‘This is what's going on with your body.’ I could see he's getting erections, and I'm trying to tell him what's going on with his body because it's really important to him.”—White father, Denver
Some fathers said they had not yet talked to their 10–12-year-olds about issues related to sexual intercourse because they thought that they were still too young. However, some said that they had discussed delaying sexual activity. (In some cases, they may have been talking about messages they had given to their older children, rather than to their preteenagers.) As one father said:
“I've told [my daughter] a million times, ‘Hey, look! You've got plenty of time in your life. Why rush anything? Enjoy your youth.'”—English-speaking Hispanic father, Denver
Many fathers reported discussing with their children the potential negative consequences of sex, such as the risks of pregnancy and STDs; a few also mentioned emotional risks. Some thought that simply telling children not to have sex was unlikely to be effective, but that children would be better equipped to make good decisions about sex if they understood the potential negative consequences. Some fathers felt that talking to children about the potential consequences of sex was easier than talking about sex itself. For example, an English-speaking Hispanic father in Denver said, “Intercourse is probably hard to talk about with a child, but they need to know … what the consequences are.”
A few fathers said that as part of discussions about the potential consequences of sex, they had spoken with their children about the importance of using condoms. One said:
“I tell them, ‘There's going to come a time when you're 15, 16, and in the heat of the moment you're going to realize that you're going to need protection.'”—English speaking Hispanic father, Denver
Other messages. A few fathers said that they wanted to convey their values regarding the meaning of sex and healthy sexuality. As one explained:
“I think the most important thing I can do as a parent is to allow my children to have a clean perspective of this aspect of life, and [to explain that] it's just another aspect of life. It's not the be-all and end-all. It's not what makes a relationship. … I want to let my children know that it is a wonderful … thing to do with another person that is special in your life.”—White father, Raleigh
Fathers sometimes said they had spoken about issues such as peer pressure and self-respect, which they saw as a means of helping their children resist engaging in sexual activity before they were ready.
Fathers discussed some topics only with sons or only with daughters. A few said they had talked to their sons about having respect for women, and some had warned their daughters that boys just want to have sex. For instance, a Spanish-speaking Hispanic father in New York reported, “I say that boys only want one thing. When they get what they want, [they will leave].”
A few fathers had warned daughters about the dangers of sexual predators, either on the Internet or on the street.
Other Strategies for Promoting Positive Development
Although some fathers had not talked with their children about sex, all of them had provided guidance that they felt would help to keep their children safe and to promote their positive development, both in general and in relation to sex.
Fathers in several groups talked about keeping their children focused on life goals, such as going to college or pursuing career aspirations (e.g., becoming a doctor). They used these goals to remind their children to work hard and stay out of trouble, and they stressed to their children the importance of avoiding the risk of an unintended pregnancy or an STD, which might prevent them from reaching their goals. An English-speaking Hispanic mother in Denver said that her husband could not talk with their daughter about her sexual development (“It's like taboo”), but he did talk to her about responsibility and waiting, advising her to “wait until you get your education.”
Some fathers discussed the importance of having clear expectations and rules for their children. For example, an English-speaking Hispanic father in Denver stated, “You have to have expectations [for] your kid. You have to tell them, ‘I expect you to do this. I expect you to do that.'”
The importance of disciplining one's children and penalizing them for misbehavior was emphasized more often in the black and Spanish-speaking Hispanic groups than in the other groups. Some fathers in the former groups stated that parents too often try to abdicate the responsibility of discipline to teachers or other authorities. They maintained that parents need to set firm limits and to revoke privileges when children are not behaving in an acceptable way. One black father in Raleigh explained that the real world has consequences, especially for black men, and that it was his job to discipline his children so that they could be safe in the world: “You've got to be real with them or the streets are going to be real with them.”
Monitoring one's children was another strategy mentioned by a few fathers. This included keeping track of their activities, restricting the music they hear and the movies they watch, reviewing their pages on social networking sites and insisting on meeting their friends. One father reported:
“I've been called a dictator because I don't let my kids do everything. … I don't let them look at MTV, BET all the time. I hate them shows because it messes up their minds.”—Black father, Raleigh
Some fathers talked about the importance of instilling their children with good values and teaching them to distinguish right from wrong. A black father in Raleigh commented that he could not be with his daughter all of the time, but that he could be “the voice in her head” that helps her to choose the right path. A white father in Denver said that his most important job as a father was to teach his children to think so that they could make good choices. Several black fathers in Raleigh said that keeping their children involved in the church was an important way to help them develop strong values.
Many fathers commented that setting a good example for their children was also important. One noted:
“You're supposed to be on your p's and q's all the time. Because you can't actually sit there and tell your kids ‘Don't do this' if you're doing it. You lead by example.”—Black father, New York
One way of setting a positive example mentioned in several groups was to provide a model of a marriage founded on love and respect, which the parents could hold up as an example of a healthy sexual relationship. Explained one father:
“I let them know that my marriage is sacred. … I show [my wife] love and affection. I tell her, ‘I love you.' And these are examples that [children] need to know.”—Black father, Raleigh
Finally, some fathers emphasized the importance of spending time with their children, keeping open lines of communication and developing a close relationship based on love and trust.
Influence of Child's Gender
Although many of the messages conveyed and strategies employed by fathers to support their children's safe and positive sexual development were the same for their sons as for their daughters, others were not. Both mothers and fathers described fathers as sometimes being more protective and restrictive with their daughters than with their sons. This tendency was mentioned by all of the groups, but it was especially pronounced in the Hispanic groups. Spanish-speaking Hispanic fathers in New York explained that although they tell their sons to be careful, they give them more freedom than they give their daughters, with whom they feel they have to be more vigilant and protective. In a few instances, the differences in fathers' attitudes about their sons' and daughters' sexuality were more extreme. For example, an English-speaking Hispanic father in New York commented that he would be proud of a 15- or 16-year-old son who reported having had sex, because initiating sex is a rite of passage for males, but that he would not want to hear his daughter say such a thing, because “that's your little girl, regardless of the age.”
In discussing communication with their children about sex, fathers mentioned warning their daughters about the dangers of sexual predators and of young men who might be interested in just having sex with them. Some participants of both genders noted that some fathers controlled their daughters' dating and prevented them from dressing or behaving in a manner that the fathers viewed as inappropriately sexual or provocative. One mother explained:
“If my daughter is doing a little dance, shaking it up, [her father] will tell her, ‘I don't like them little dances that you see on those videos. Stop doing that.' Or if her pants are too tight, he'll say, ‘Mama, those pants are too tight.' He's like, ‘Yeah, I don't want no boys looking at you.'”—Black mother, New York
Concern about daughters' provocative dress and behaviors was especially common among black fathers, many of whom commented that their 10–12-year-old daughters were already fully developed and drawing grown men's attention, a situation that they were not prepared to handle.
Some fathers said they were protective of their daughters because they had firsthand knowledge of the male sex drive, and did not want anyone taking advantage of their daughters. For example, a Spanish-speaking Hispanic father in New York said, “The problem of fathers with girls … is that we know how we were when we were young, and we do not want that for our daughters.”
At the same time, however, fathers in a few groups said that their awareness of the double standard and of how boys think about sex motivated them to be stricter with their sons than they would be otherwise, and to teach them to respect women. One English-speaking Hispanic father in Denver reported: “Personally, I'm going to be harder on my son to not be that stud out there, [trying to get a] notch in his headboard.”
Another reason fathers said they might be more protective of daughters than of sons is that some of the consequences of sex, such as pregnancy, were greater for females than for males. One father commented that he felt daughters were more likely than sons to have their hearts broken if they had sex. However, a few fathers noted that the consequences of having sex were more severe now than they were in the past for both sons and daughters, primarily because of the risk of AIDS, but also because increased enforcement of child support laws has made it more difficult for men to evade their share of responsibility for unintended pregnancies. As a result, these fathers felt the need to be strict with their sons as well as with their daughters. As one black father in Raleigh commented, “It's a whole new different world, because we don't let our sons do stuff.”
Comparison with Mothers
Fathers and mothers described largely similar roles for themselves in protecting their children from sexual risk. The most notable differences concerned daughters: Fathers tended to be more uncomfortable with the concept of their daughters' sexuality, and more protective, than mothers were. Both mothers and fathers were highly motivated to protect their children and thought it was important for parents to talk to their children about sex, but fathers were more likely to abdicate that responsibility to the other parent. When they did talk to their children about sex, mothers and fathers generally reported conveying similar messages. Two differences, however, were that mothers tended to be more supportive than fathers of a “wait-until-marriage” message, and that mothers did not warn their daughters as much as fathers did about boys' just wanting to have sex or about the dangers of predators.
The other strategies that mothers used to protect their children from sexual risks were the same ones that fathers used, but differences in emphasis were apparent. In general, fathers talked more about life goals, conveying expectations and using discipline than mothers did, while mothers tended to emphasize monitoring.
The role of fathers as communicators about sexuality is frequently discounted, and indeed previous research has shown that fathers are much less likely than mothers to talk with their children about sex.13,15,16 Our findings, however, highlight the importance of the father's role. Several parents—both mothers and fathers—noted that in their families, the father was the parent who was more comfortable with and capable of addressing issues related to sexuality. In addition, many parents stressed that fathers could give their children a perspective different from that of mothers, a distinction they felt was valuable.
The extent of fathers' discussions with their children about sex varied widely, and some had not even thought about the issue prior to participating in the focus groups. However, all of the fathers were very invested in their children's well-being and believed that they had an important role to play in ensuring their children's positive development.
Many fathers acknowledged that despite their motivation to talk to their children about sex, they found it difficult to do. As we described in a previous analysis of data from this study,17 both mothers and fathers report significant barriers to talking to their children about sex, including thinking their children are not ready to hear about sex, not being sure how to have such discussions, and feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed. Similar barriers have been identified in other studies.20,21 The present analysis, however, suggests that fathers confront barriers beyond those encountered by mothers. For example, some fathers felt that a mother is better suited than a father to talking with children about sex (either because she has a closer relationship with the children or because she has a better communication style), a finding that is supported by previous research.16
Fathers [may] confront barriers beyond those encounterd by mothers.
In addition, gender and views concerning male and female sex roles may hinder men's ability to communicate about sex openly and effectively with their children—especially their daughters. Many fathers commented that given their own experience of the male sex drive, they were concerned that their daughters might be hurt or taken advantage of by men. Some also felt uncomfortable thinking of their daughters as sexual beings; as noted by Kirkman and colleagues,16 puberty and the intrusion of sexuality can disrupt previously close father-daughter relationships. For these reasons, fathers may feel uncomfortable discussing with their daughters any issues related to sex, or they may focus on issues related to protection and restriction of their daughters' sexuality.
Fathers may have the opposite problem with sons. Consistent with the sexual double standard, some fathers commented that they were more permissive with their sons than with their daughters. As a result, they may be less likely to encourage their sons to delay having sex, or to discuss with them issues such as values and emotions related to sexuality. Because mothers in the focus groups were less likely to talk to their sons than to their daughters, a finding similar to ones reported elsewhere,8,13,14 the guidance fathers provide to boys is especially important.
We should note that fathers stressed that talking about sex is just one means that parents have to promote their children's safe and healthy sexual development. They described a wide range of strategies that they used, such as helping their children set and pursue life goals and monitoring their children's activities. Thus, in their view, even if they do not talk to their children about sex, fathers can and do influence their children's sexual behaviors. Previous research has demonstrated the importance of many of these strategies in reducing children's sexual risk.3,22–25
Limitations and Strengths
A limitation of this study is that participants were a select group of parents who were sufficiently interested in the topic and comfortable discussing it that they were willing to attend a focus group. In addition, a large majority of them belonged to intact nuclear families. Fathers who are less comfortable with the topic or who do not live with their children may be less motivated than the fathers in this study to talk to their children about sex, and may be less involved in other strategies to promote their children's safety and well-being. Because of the limited number of nonresident fathers in the study, their roles and attitudes could not be fully explored. Further research is needed to examine the differences in parent-child communication between fathers who live full-time with their children and those who do not.
An important strength of the study is that in contrast to previous research, it represents views of fathers from a range of racial and ethnic groups and regions of the country. The only systematic differences that we observed were that Hispanic fathers talked more often than others about being more protective of their daughters and more permissive with their sons, and that black fathers were the only ones to talk about their daughters' early pubertal development and restricting their daughters' provocative dancing and attire. The lack of other clear differences suggests that the dynamics of communication may be generally similar across groups. At the same time, many themes were mentioned in some groups but not others, and the lack of a clear pattern may reflect the limited number of focus groups for each racial and ethnic group. To make more reliable generalizations about cross-group differences, future qualitative research would benefit from having a larger number of focus groups for each racial and ethnic group. Large-scale quantitative surveys with diverse samples would be useful for clarifying any differences among racial and ethnic groups.
To gain a better understanding of fathers' roles, future research should also explore children's perspectives on their father's influence. Large-scale quantitative surveys would provide information on the prevalence of various behaviors and attitudes among fathers.
Our findings suggest that many fathers are eager to play a role in guiding their children's sexual development, and they believe that they can make a unique contribution by presenting an alternative perspective to that of their children's mother. Therefore, interventions to support parent-child communication about sex should not neglect fathers. Because some fathers have not given much thought to the topic, interventions may need to help them make the connection between their strong motivation to help their children be safe and successful in life and the importance of talking to their children about sex. Efforts to support fathers in communicating with their children about sex also need to enhance their self-efficacy to discuss such sensitive matters. In addition, to provide guidance most effectively, many fathers may need to sort out their values and positions concerning their sons' and their daughters' sexual activity. Finally, because talking about sex is just one means that fathers have to guide and protect their children, interventions should emphasize not only the importance of talking to children about sex, but also other strategies that fathers can and do employ.