Research Watch: Fatherhood Puts Boys at Risk

Diana Zuckerman
July 1, 2000

Terence Thornberry, Evelyn Wei, Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, and Joyce Van Dyke

Juvenile Justice Bulletin

U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

January 2000

Available free from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse.
(800) 638-8736. Fax: (301) 519-5212. E-mail: Web:

We know relatively little about teen fatherhood, although research has shown that teen fathers are more likely to use drugs, have school problems, and get into other kinds of trouble. The exact number of teen fathers is unknown, but the National Center for Health Statistics reports that the rate of teen fatherhood grew substantially between 1986 and 1996. Their studies indicate that approximately 2.3 percent of males between 15 and 19 became fathers in 1996, but government experts believe the number is probably higher.

This new report is based on data from the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency, which is a study of more than 4,000 participants who have been interviewed for over a decade in Rochester, N.Y., Denver and Pittsburgh.


The Rochester Youth Development Study tracked 615 urban males from 1988 through 1996, interviewing them on a regular basis starting in seventh or eighth grade. Seven (1 percent) became fathers at the age of 15; 28 percent became fathers before they were 20. Fatherhood was especially likely among high frequency drug users: 70 percent were teen fathers compared to 24 percent of those who never or rarely used drugs. Similarly, almost half (47 percent) of the high-rate delinquents became teen fathers compared to only 23 percent of those who never or rarely engaged in delinquent behavior. These differences were statistically significant.

Race, parents’ educational levels, and youths’ reading levels were also related to teen fatherhood. Even when these were statistically controlled, there was a cluster of problem behaviors related to teen fatherhood: chronic drug use (which more than doubled the likelihood of teen fatherhood), sexual intercourse before age 16, gang membership and violent behavior. Nine risk factors were evaluated in the study, and boys with more risk factors were more likely to become teen fathers.


The Pittsburgh study followed 506 inner city adolescent males from 1988 to 1993. Twelve percent became fathers before their 19th birthday; the youngest was 14. These 62 teenagers fathered 82 children.

Unlike the Rochester study, early drug use was not strongly related to fatherhood, but delinquency was. Sixteen percent of frequent drug users became teen fathers, compared to 12 percent of those who never or rarely used drugs. However, high-rate delinquents were more than twice as likely to become teen fathers (19 percent) compared to those who never or rarely engaged in delinquent behaviors (9 percent), a statistically significant difference.

Other factors which put boys at risk for becoming fathers included being cruel to people, being raised on welfare, or having been offered drugs or witnessed a drug deal. Personal traits related to teen fatherhood included race, early sexual activity, mother’s low education, and low school achievement. When these were controlled, the greatest predictor was being older than other boys in the same grade. Every factor that predicted fatherhood also predicted delinquency, but not every factor that predicted delinquency predicted fatherhood.

In a study like this, a crucial question is whether fatherhood causes the other problems or vice versa. The hope was that fatherhood would instill a sense of responsibility, but the results indicate the opposite: becoming a father seems to make matters worse. The researchers compared boys who later became fathers to boys of the same race, age, and neighborhood who did not become fathers. Before fatherhood, there were no differences in delinquency, but four years after fatherhood, the teen fathers were 2.5 times more likely to have become serious delinquents. In fact, the year they became fathers they were 7.5 times more likely to commit a serious delinquent act. The fathers and non-fathers did not differ in terms of violent activities; the difference was in other kinds of crime, such as car theft and burglary.

The implications for youth workers are clear: parenthood is as bad for boys as it is for girls, and teen fathers are likely to be especially miserable role models and providers. Prevention efforts are therefore as crucial for boys as they are for girls.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Fatherhood Puts Boys at Risk." Research Watch review of "Teenage Fatherhood and Delinquent Behavior". Youth Today, July/August 2000, p. 14.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.