Ask A Researcher

July 2016

Father Involvement and the Future of Children and Families

Sean E. Brotherson, PhD, is a Professor and Extension Family Science Specialist with North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. He earned his PhD in human development and family studies at Oregon State University in 2000. His work involves teaching family courses and developing educational programs for children, couples, and families. In his research, he focuses on father involvement across diverse settings and the dimensions of generative fathering. He is the co-editor of the book Why Fathers Count (with Joseph White) and former co-director of the Dakota Fatherhood Initiative. In this article, he discusses the issue of father involvement in family life, fathers’ contribution to child well-being, and how fathers can be encouraged to give care and support their families.  

 

 

Q: Why is father involvement a topic of social concern in America today?

A wide variety of scholarly studies, publications, and social programs in recent years have focused attention on the issue of fathering. Diverse disciplines ranging from early childhood education to juvenile justice to modern health care have sought to address the topic of male involvement in family life and its consequences. According to some scholars, the “most urgent social problem” in the United States today is the increasing number of fathers who either are not in the home or are ineffective parents while at home. As a result of such social concerns, efforts to encourage better fathering have been ongoing in the United States for over twenty years.
Why is fathering an important issue on the nation’s agenda? Perhaps because, as a number of scholars have noted, increasingly more children do not reside with their fathers, have only limited interaction with their fathers, and receive little economic support from their fathers. One research study on the topic of family upheaval in America addressed this concern about father involvement and was titled: “A Generation at Risk.” Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that one of every three children in America, which amounts to 24 million children, lives in a home without the involved presence of a father or father figure. Because children depend on the adults in their lives for care and support, the question of how adults are responding to the needs of the rising generation is a critical issue for families and communities.

Q: In what ways do fathers make contributions to the well-being of children and families?

            A body of research that is impressive in its size and breadth has been conducted that examines the question of how fathers make contributions to the well-being of children and families. Such research confirms that all caring adults, including mothers, fathers, and other caregivers, are important in the lives of children. Additionally, it suggests that committed, involved fathers and father figures bring many positive elements to the growth and development of children, the stability of families, and the well-being of communities. A brief sampling of research findings that highlight the contributions of fathers in family life is illustrative:

  • Data analyzed from the National Study of Families and Households showed that when fathers were more involved, children experienced fewer behavior problems and anxieties, got along better with others, and were more responsible.
  • Research on empathy in adulthood found that the strongest predictor of empathy for others was the level of care and support by fathers in childhood. This applied to both men and women.
  • Summarizing a series of studies on fathers’ influence on young children, research indicates that fathers’ interest and involvement in the early years of a child’s life is strongly associated with higher cognitive functioning and greater academic achievement among school-age children.
  • Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth indicates that a father’s absence significantly increases the likelihood of difficulties with peers, depressive behavior in boys, and behavior challenges for girls.
  • In the case of non-resident fathers, recent research indicates that regular and positive father-child contact in the first decade of a child’s life is strongly associated with better social and emotional functioning, higher reading achievement, and improved academic performance.
  • Childhood poverty in America is affected by fathers’ ties to the family. Children living in family settings where fathers reside with the family, or are regularly involved, have substantially lower rates of poverty than families with tenuous ties to the father.

 

This set of issues that affect child well-being – getting along with others, empathy, academic achievement, child poverty, depression in childhood – is significantly affected by a father’s presence and involvement. The list of issues important to child well-being that are substantially influenced by positive father involvement could be further expanded, but this listing is sufficient to make the point. One scholar who tracked the contributions of fathers to children across generations in a four-decade study noted that such efforts matter “over a lifetime” and “even over generations.” 

Q: How can fathers and men in general be encouraged in efforts to give responsible care and support in family life?

            While there have been a variety of attempts to launch new perspectives on fathers in contemporary society, at the same time a vigorous social debate over men and their relevance in family life has sometimes made it difficult for men to adapt to changing family expectations. Men are affected in their efforts to be good parents by their understanding of a father’s role and responsibilities, the expectations of parenting, and sources of support for their efforts.
            An important starting point to encouraging men in family life is to provide clear ideas about a father’s roles and responsibilities. Some advocates have advanced ideas such as the “new fatherhood” to clarify paternal responsibilities. It has been pointed out that how fathers behave in their individual relationships often lags behind changing cultural expectations about fatherhood. Often, men are faced with messages that arise from a “deficiency model of manhood” that reinforces negative images of men and their deficiencies in carrying out the tasks of parenthood. And yet, it is men’s strengths – their capacity to care, protect, and give – that are needed by children, women, and men themselves. Emphasizing men’s capacities for care and encouraging growth based on existing strengths tends to be more successful in encouraging positive male involvement than any other approach.
            Changing patterns in contemporary family life have moved expectations for parenting in the direction of shared caregiving efforts between partners who parent. As a result, the disparity between men and women in spending time doing family work and giving direct care to children has shifted significantly, and women expect that men will be involved in all the tasks of parenting children. Since 1965, fathers have doubled the amount of time they spend weekly in doing household chores (from 4 to 10 hours) and tripled the amount of time they spend weekly caring directly for children (from 2.5 to 7 hours). Such changes are likely to continue as roles in family life become more egalitarian and expectations for shared involvement are solidified among rising generations. In general, clear expectations with regard to parenting tasks are beneficial to men in encouraging them to reach toward responsible, involved parenting.
            Programs and policies designed to encourage men in their fathering efforts also have an influence on how men think and act as parents. Typically, men receive less socialization while growing up that prepares them for parenting and so it is important to foster creative ways to mentor and support them in such efforts. From the local level to the national government, specific initiatives to support and encourage responsible fathering have been ongoing across the United States for over two decades. Whether through public awareness campaigns or parenting newsletters or mentoring programs, fathers and families are well served by the specific message that everyone benefits when men fulfill their paternal opportunities and responsibilities.
  

References List

Brotherson, S. E., & White, J. M. (Eds.). (2007). Why fathers count: The importance of fathers
and their involvement with children. Harriman, TN: Men’s Studies Press.

Brotherson, S. E., Dollahite, D. C., & Hawkins, A. J. (2005). Generative fathering and the
dynamics of connection between fathers and their children. Fathering: A Journal of Theory,
Research, and Practice About Men as Fathers, Vol. 3(1), 1-28.

Cabrera, N., & Tamis-Lemonda, C. (2013). Handbook of father involvement: Multidisciplinary perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Lamb, M. E. (Ed.). (2010). The role of the father in child development (5th ed.). Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Pattnaik, J., & Sriram, R. (2010). Father/male involvement in the care and education of children: History, trends, research, policies, and programs around the world. Childhood Education, 86, 354-359.

Popenoe, D. (2009). Families without fathers: Fathers, marriage and children in American society. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

Sarkadi, A., Kristiansson, R., Oberklaid, F., & Bremberg, S. (2008). Fathers’ involvement and children’s developmental outcomes: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. Acta Paediatrica, 97, 153-158.

Shwalb, D. W., Shwalb, B. J., & Lamb, M. E. (Eds.). (2013). Fathers in cultural context. New York: Routledge.

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For further information on father involvement and related issues, contact:

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