- February 2020
- Fast Focus Research/Policy Brief No. 45-2020
Just as the nature of family has changed in the past several decades, so has the definition of father. Sixty percent of American men today have at least one biological child (Figure 1), and, among the 72 million fathers in the United States, there are biological dads and also men who serve as social, legal, and stepfathers, in families ranging in structure from married to cohabitating, recombined, and single parent. Three-fourths of U.S. fathers have more than one biological child (Figure 2); and three-fourths of U.S. children live either with both parents or just with their dad.
Many men serve as father figures without legal recognition as such. Social science research also has shifted, from a focus on how father absence might affect children’s development to a focus on potential effects of father involvement. Similarly, social services practice is shifting from a programming emphasis on mothers to approaches that include and welcome fathers. This brief explores current understanding and theories about how supportive, involved fathers are associated with their children’s healthy development.
Consensus is growing in research, policy, and practice that involved fathers matter.
Involved fathering is sensitive, warm, close, friendly, supportive, affectionate, nurturing, encouraging, comforting, and accepting. Involved fathers are associated with positive effects on their children beginning before birth. During pregnancy, partner support is associated with fewer maternal health problems and more positive maternal and infant outcomes than found among women who lack a supportive partner. Research also suggests that paternal prenatal bonding is associated with benefits to the subsequent father-child relationship. Fathers’ supportive (or abusive) behavior can influence maternal attachment to their baby, and the quality of the partner relationship often predicts how both parents will respond to the needs of their child.
In numerous studies, positive father involvement is associated with children’s higher academic achievement; greater school readiness; stronger math and verbal skills; greater emotional security; higher self-esteem; fewer behavioral problems; and greater social competence than found among children who do not have caring, involved fathers.
These findings fuel growing consensus in research, policy, and practice that involved fathers influence their children’s development in unique and important ways. However, given the decline of marriage, increase in divorce, and growth of nonmarital childbearing over the past half century, many biological fathers don’t live with their children, which can reduce contact. Nonresident dads who have a successful coparenting relationship with their children’s mother tend to be more involved in their children’s lives.
Numerous rigorous studies associate father absence with negative effects on their children’s well-being. Studies also have found that children of involved fathers often grow up to be involved parents themselves. Fathers are important to girls, too. A study found that women who had an involved father in childhood experienced fewer psychological problems as young adults than women who did not.
Newer fatherhood models examine fathers’ essential functions.
As social scientists’ focus moved from studying father absence to father involvement, the need arose for a broader view of paternal involvement that includes what and how much fathers actually do for and with their children. The “Involved Fatherhood Model”  emerged as the dominant frame. It comprises three components:
- Positive engagement: Involved fathers directly interact with their children in positive ways, including caregiving such as changing diapers and shared activities that involve play.
- Accessibility: Involved fathers are available to their children even when not directly interacting, such as cooking while the child plays nearby.
- Responsibility: Involved fathers take ultimate responsibility for their child’s welfare and care, including participating in decision-making regarding child-rearing and ensuring that children’s needs are met.
Other researchers built on the Involved Fatherhood Model to include fathers’ provision of indirect care, such as providing financial support, and direct care, such as caregiving and play.
Comparing father involvement to mother involvement reveals fathers’ unique value.
Mothers are widely associated with nurturance and protection, but there is less consensus concerning fathers’ unique value (although financial provider is often seen as central). On average, fathers tend to be more involved in play than caregiving and their play is more physical and challenging than that of mothers. Fathers often encourage their children to take risks and be independent, whereas mothers typically emphasize avoiding risk and injury. A newer area of fatherhood study examines how fathers tend to encourage children “to explore, take chances, overcome obstacles, be braver in the presence of strangers, and stand up for themselves.”
Researchers are examining family structures and transitions and their associations with children’s later behavior and achievement trajectories.
Many researchers are examining whether family structures—such as intact biological-parent, social-father, or single-parent families—and family-structure transitions are associated with children’s behavior and school achievement trajectories during middle childhood. For example, one study examined associations between the proportion of time primary-school-age children spend in a given family structure and the children’s behavior and school achievement.
Researchers found no differences in initial well-being among children in the different family types. However, they found significant differences in children’s well-being over time. Children who spend their entire childhood living with both biological parents have, on average, fewer achievement and behavioral problems in childhood than those who spend time in other family types.
Policy and practice are increasingly aware of involved fathers’ important role in their children’s lives.
A growing body of research points to positive effects on children of having an involved father. On average, children whose father is actively involved tend to have fewer problems with school achievement, behavior, and social interaction than children whose father is not actively involved in their life. Increasingly, policymakers and practitioners alike are looking for ways to engage fathers in programming, to be explored in a subsequent Fast Focus Research/Policy Brief.
Special thanks to Tova Walsh, Assistant Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin–Madison, whose Institute for Research on Poverty webinar “The Unique Contributions of Fathers to Their Children’s Development,” February 20, 2019, provided the basis for this brief.
Definitions of terms: A social father is a man who is married to or cohabiting with a child’s mother but is not the child’s biological father; a legal father is a man recognized by law as the male parent of a child; a stepfather is the husband of one’s parent when different from a child’s biological or legal father; in a recombined family, one or both of the spouses have been divorced or widowed and have remarried and formed a new family that includes children from one or both first marriages and/or from the remarriage.
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