Father involvement refers to involvement by fathers in the daily responsibilities of parenthood. According to data from the early 1990s, only 12.6 percent of men 45 to 64 years of age report never having had children (Bachu 1996). Thus, although not all men are fathers, most eventually father a child and have, therefore, the opportunity to act as a father to their own children. Men without their own biological children have the opportunity to be a father to their partners’ children through marriage or cohabitation. Sixty four percent of children live with their biological or adoptive mother and father, 6.7 percent live with a biological parent and a stepparent, 21 percent live with a single mother, another 2 percent live with their single mother and the mother’s cohabiting partner, 2.5 percent live with their single biological father, and 4 percent do not live with a parent (Hofferth et al. 2002).
Social and Demographic Changes Affecting Fathers and Fathering
Adjustments in the roles of fathers and mothers have resulted from social changes over the past decades. Such changes include women’s increased labor force participation, the absence of many men from families, the increased involvement of other types of fathers in children’s lives, and increased cultural diversity in the US (Cabrera et al. 2000). A concern about the wellbeing of children raised in low income families is linked to these same changes. Although many of the same concerns are recognized in developed countries across the globe, this discussion is limited to the US context.
In the recent past much of the focus on fathers was occasioned by their absence. The focus on father absence sprang from large increases in divorce and separation beginning in the 1970s that resulted in fathers substantially reducing their financial and other commitments to family and children. Early research focused upon the effects of the absence of the father on the financial condition of the family.
Since the mid-1990s, research has focused on the involvement of non-residential fathers with children, not just on the father’s financial contribution. Research from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study suggests that unmarried fathers are more involved with their families than popularly believed. At birth 82 percent were romantically involved with the baby’s mother and 44 percent were living together (Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing 2000).
The other major change is the increased labor force participation of married mothers. Women have always worked; however, the increase in employment of married mothers with young children in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1990s of single mothers, was remark ably rapid. Maternal labor force participation, which has increased maternal financial support for the family and removed financial support as fathers’ primary responsibility, has led to the focus on paternal responsibility for non-financial involvement and care of children.
The most frequently used framework conceptualizes father involvement as having three major components: (1) the time fathers are engaged with or accessible to children overall or in specific activities; (2) the responsibility they take for them; and (3) the quality or nature of the relationship (Lamb 2004).
Research has found that fathers in intact families spend about 1 hour and 13 minutes on a weekday and about 3.3 hours on a weekend day with children under age 13 (Yeung et al. 2001). Because both parents’ time with children may vary, relative levels of involvement may provide a better sense of father involvement. Based upon data from the 1980s and 1990s, fathers’ time engaged in activities with their children is about two fifths of mothers’ time. Fathers are accessible to their children about two thirds as often as mothers. These figures are higher than in the 1970s and early 1980s. A recent study from the mid-1990s shows that fathers’ time engaged with children on a weekday is about two thirds of mothers’ time, and on a weekend day almost 90 percent of mothers’ time, additional evidence for increased father involvement. In these more recent data, the ratio of fathers’ to mothers’ time accessible to their children is about the same as that of engaged time. As children get older and the absolute amount of parental time declines, fathers’ time rises as a proportion of mothers’ time with children.
Of course, the increasing ratio of fathers’ to mothers’ time since the 1970s could be due to either a decline in mothers’ or an increase in fathers’ time. However, one comparison between 1965 and 1997 suggests that mothers’ time with children has remained fairly constant, and, hence, the rise in the ratio of fathers’ to mothers’ time with children is not due to a decline in mothers’ time, at least in two parent families. Other research also suggests that fathers’ time with children has risen in two parent families where the average amount of time children spent with fathers rose about 3 hours per week between 1981 and 1997 and time with mothers rose as well. The time children spent with fathers did not rise significantly over all families because of the offsetting increased number of single parent families and because nonresidential fathers are less involved with their children (Sandberg & Hofferth 2001).
Although the overall amount of time may be important to child development, developmental psychologists are concerned about the nature of those activities. As has been found in several studies, play and companionship account for the largest fraction of time children spend with their fathers. About 39 percent of children’s engaged time with fathers is spent in play and companionship on a weekday or weekend day. Learning, household work, and social activities comprise a relatively small fraction of children’s time with their fathers, about 31 percent. The time children spend in learning and educational activities with their fathers is quite small, averaging only 3 to 5 percent of engaged time.
A second important category is personal care received by the child from the father, about 25 percent of the father’s engaged time on a weekend day and 35 percent on a weekday. Childcare by fathers when mothers are working is an important aspect of care giving. In the US a substantial minority of dual earner parents keep their use of non-parental care to a minimum by adjusting their work schedules so that a parent can care for their children when needed. About one third of working parents in two parent families with a preschool child work different schedules and can share child care responsibilities. The proportion of fathers who care for children during the hours when mothers work rises to three quarters as the number of non-overlapping hours increases. Other evidence that fathers’ time in childcare is responsive to available time is that, during the 1991 recession in which more men were presumably out of work or working fewer hours, the proportion of men who provided childcare as primary or secondary provider while their wives were working rose by one third. It declined again following the end of the recessionary period.
Much of what parents do for children demands time indirectly, through management of their lives and activities – the extent of responsibility fathers take is a key variable across families. Fathers can participate in a wide variety of managerial and supervisory activities, including selecting doctors and child care programs, managing appointments, arranging transportation, coordinating with schools, and monitoring children’s activities (Cabrera et al. 2000). Although fathers take less responsibility than mothers, and few fathers take sole responsibility for any parenting tasks, fathers are likely to share direct care, to transport children to activities, and to participate in choosing activities and selecting a childcare program, preschool, or school (Hofferth et al. 2002). They are less likely to be involved in purchasing clothing, and in selecting and making appointments for doctor visits.
An additional aspect of fathering considered here is the quality of the father–child relationship. Most developmental psychologists argue that the quality of parenting and of the parent–child relationship is crucial to developing competent children. A combination of responsiveness with control has been shown by research to be linked to optimal child development. Fathers who were affectionate, sensitive, spent time with their child, and had more positive attitudes had securely attached infants at 9 months. Positive father involvement has also been linked to greater social skills, cognitive ability, school performance, self-esteem, and social confidence in children (Lamb 2004).
What Factors Motivate Fathers to Be Involved with Their Children?
Family structural variables are expected to be associated with paternal involvement because they may influence fathers’ motivation to participate. Particularly important are the relationships of the male to the child (biological/other) and to the mother (married/cohabiting). From the point of view of evolutionary psychology, genetic benefits arise from fathering and investing in one’s own natural offspring. Such ‘‘parenting investment’’ increases the reproductive fitness of the next generation. Stepfathers gain little genetic benefit by investing in the care of stepchildren, and such investment detracts from time they might otherwise spend ensuring their own biological progeny. However, many examples of caring behavior by stepparents exist, suggesting that paternal investment is not restricted only to biological offspring. One of the mechanisms behind such investment is ‘‘relationship investment.’’ By investing in their spouse’s children from a prior union, remarried men increase the prospect of further childbearing as well as continuation of supportive exchanges with their partner. Thus investment in one’s partner’s children may have payoffs. However, there is also less normative support for involvement by stepfathers than biological fathers, consistent with findings that step fathers are behaviorally less involved (Hofferth & Anderson 2003). It is likely that cohabiting (especially non biological cohabiting) fathers also receive less normative support for being involved. In addition, both stepfathers and cohabiting fathers may receive less support than married biological fathers for involvement from the child’s mother.
Fathers are likely to differ on a variety of social and demographic factors that could also be linked to father involvement. For example, fathers’ motivation for involvement with older children may be greater because interaction with them is more gratifying. On the other hand, adolescent children may become less interested and motivated to spend time with their father. Cultural variation also exists. Recent research found African American and Hispanic fathers taking more responsibility for managerial tasks than white fathers, even after adjusting for differences in socioeconomic and demographic characteristics (Hofferth 2003). African American fathers have been found to be less warm and more controlling than white fathers and Hispanic fathers equally warm but less controlling than white fathers. Better educated fathers may have more positive fathering attitudes and more equitable gender role attitudes, which may relate to greater engagement with children. Their expectations may also be higher. On the other hand, fathers with longer work hours will be constrained from spending more time with children. Fathers’ income could be positively or negatively related to engagement with children, depending upon whether the level of income is a function more of education or of work hours.
Current Research On Father Involvement
Much of the current research focuses on effects of father involvement on child development (Lamb 2004). One of the major issues in examining outcomes of father involvement is to identify unique effects of fathers separate from mothers. There are three basic ways it is thought that fathers affect their children’s development. The first is by direct interaction and involvement with the child, including teaching, helping, playing, etc. A second is by taking responsibility for aspects of the child’s life, such as making appointments, talking with teachers, arranging care, and monitoring the child’s activities. The third is through interaction with the mother, including supporting the mother in childrearing, both emotionally and financially. All avenues are likely to be important, but only the first has been widely researched.
Research has failed to find a strong association between amount of time spent doing things with children and their wellbeing and development. Rather, research tends to find significant links between the warmth of the father and mother and child development. It has been extremely difficult to show links between specific parenting behaviors, such as helping with homework, and child achievement. Parental involvement in children’s schooling, for example, has been found to be associated with greater school achievement. Thus it is likely that the quality and type of parenting matters more to child development than the total amount of father involvement. It is possible, of course, that the types of involvement measures used to date are not specific enough to capture these linkages.
There is substantial support for the hypothesis that a positive relationship between mother and father is good for children. Parents who have a good relationship feel better about themselves, are better parents, and their children are better adjusted, whereas conflict leads to mal adjustment.
Most of the above research has been conducted on residential parents. Increasing research on amount and quality of involvement has focused on non-residential fathers (Hofferth et al. 2002). Research has found greater frequency of contact with the nonresident father to be associated with better child outcomes (Amato & Gilbreth 1999).
Methodological Issues in Studying Men as Fathers
Fathers are difficult to study. A report that summarized some of the methodological issues in studying fathers was produced in the 1990s by the Forum on Child and Family Statistics (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics 1998). Obtaining the cooperation of fathers in order to obtain the best information about their involvement is not the easiest task. To begin with, men are under counted in surveys. Many men are loosely connected to households and are simply not included in our enumeration of households. Low income fathers, in particular, may be living in several places, on the street, or be in jail or in the military. Even if they are identified, men’s fertility is usually underestimated. Fathers are accessed mainly through the mothers of their children. Married fathers can be located; however, fathers are much less likely to agree to participate than mothers. They work full time more often, are at home less frequently, and are less likely to agree to be interviewed. Thus much of the information on fathers that is used today is reported by the mother. That is unlikely to provide the best information about father involvement as it may depend upon the mother’s attitude toward the father. This has always been a problem for non-residential fathers, because many mothers do not want to provide access to these fathers or do not know their whereabouts. The Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID CDS) was able to interview only about 25 percent of the non-residential fathers of the children in the study. Most of the contact problem was due to failure to obtain contact information from the mother. Mothers refused in one third of the cases and one third could not be located. Upon contacting the father, cooperation was reasonably high, about 64 percent. In the Early Head Start Study, 60 percent of mothers gave information that could be used to identify the father of the child, and of these 60 percent participated.
Interviewing residential fathers is also problematic. Obtaining an interview with a second family member is expensive and time consuming because it takes additional contact and interview time. The use of a self-administered questionnaire in the PSID CDS resulted in a response rate of only about 60 percent of fathers.
An alternative way to obtain information about fathers is by starting with the man as the study respondent and following him as he becomes an adult. The problem here is in obtaining accurate reports of having fathered a child. Men who were without a high school degree, who were black, who fathered a child at a young age, and who did not consistently live with the child from birth were less likely to be verifiable as children’s fathers in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 79 (NLSY79). Besides reports that may not be accurate, male fertility reports are often missing. In the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), 8 percent of men did not report on the number of children ever born (Bachu 1996). An alternative strategy that has worked well is to start with the birth of a baby and get the couple at this ‘‘magic moment.’’ In the Study of Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing, which took this approach in studying unmarried couples, response rates for mothers were 87 percent and for fathers were 75 percent (Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing 2000).
The research on fathers’ involvement in the family increasingly focuses on two areas: (1) examining the relationship between father involvement and child development in special types of families, such as minority families, low income and ‘‘fragile’’ families, and stepfamilies; and (2) conducting qualitative inter views with fathers to examine such topics as the meaning of fatherhood in men’s lives and how men become fathers to children they did not sire. These qualitative studies should be helpful in designing a new generation of studies that examines the process of becoming a father and how becoming a father links to men’s later involvement with children.
- Amato, P. R. & Gilbreth, J. G. (1999) Nonresident Fathers and Children’s Well-Being: A Meta- Analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (August): 557 73.
- Bachu, A. (1996) Fertility of American Men (Population Division Working Paper No. 14). US Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC.
- Cabrera, N., Tamis-LeMonda, N., Bradley, B., Hofferth, S., & Lamb, M. (2000) Fatherhood in the 21st Century. Child Development 71: 127 36.
- Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (1998) Nurturing Fatherhood: Improving Data and Research on Male Fertility, Family Formation, and Fatherhood. Forum on Child and Family Statistics, Washington, DC.
- Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing (2000) Dispel ling Myths about Unmarried Fathers (Fragile Families Research Brief No. 1). Bendheim-Thomas Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton.
- Hofferth, S. L. (2003) Race/Ethnic Differences in Father Involvement in Two-Parent Families: Culture, Context, or Economy. Journal of Family Issues 24(2): 185 216.
- Hofferth, S. L. & Anderson, K. (2003) Are All Dads Equal? Biology vs. Marriage as Basis for Paternal Investment. Journal of Marriage and Family.
- Hofferth, S., Pleck, J., Stueve, J., Bianchi, S., & Sayer, L. (2002) The Demography of Fathers: What Fathers Do. In: Tamis-LeMonda, C. & Cabrera, N. (Eds.), Handbook of Father Involvement. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.
- Lamb, M. E. (Ed.) (2004) The Role of the Father in Child Development, 4th edn. Wiley, New York. Sandberg, J. F. & Hofferth, S. L. (2001) Changes in Parental Time with Children. Demography 38: 423 36.
- Yeung, W. J., Sandberg, J., Davis-Kean, P. E., & Hofferth, S. L. (2001) Children’s Time with Fathers in Intact Families. Journal of Marriage and the Family 63(1): 136 54.