views updated


In the 1990s, researchers and social commentators began to document recent social and cultural shifts in how men see themselves in their role as fathers and how families, policies, and others conceptualize them in these roles. For example, increased women's labor force participation has reconfigured child-care environments for children, giving fathers the opportunity to play a more active role in the care of their children. In cases in which the mother and father of a child do not reside in the same household, men's groups have argued that while men accept their responsibilities for the economic and psychological well-being of their children, they also demand legal rights and access to their children. Moreover, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the number of single fathers living with their children increased by 25 percent during the late 1990s, reflecting an increased acceptance by courts and society of paternal custody, an increased tendency on the part of men to seek custody, and a greater willingness on the part of mothers and judges to agree to paternal custody.

These social shifts parallel changes in the cultural ideals of good fathering and have important implications for child well-being. In general, children who grow up with involved, caring, and nurturing fathers tend to experience academic success and good peer relationships, and take less risky behaviors. In contrast, father absence is consistently associated with poor school achievement, early childbearing, and high risk-taking behavior. Although the mechanism by which positive father involvement affects children's outcomes is unclear, there is enough evidence to assert that fathers matter to the social, economic, and psychological development of their children, themselves, and their families.

History and Background of Father Involvement

Interest in fathers and their role in their children's development have sustained researchers' attention off and on since the 1970s. Sociodemo-graphic, cultural, economic, and historical changes— women's increasing labor force participation; increased nonparental care for children; increases in nonmarital childbearing and cohabitation; and father absence in some families and increased father presence in others—have greatly affected how families organize themselves. These changes have led to different family structures and different expectations and beliefs about the roles of fathers and mothers. The "ideal" father had undergone an evolution from the colonial father, to the distant breadwinner, to the modern involved dad, to the father as co-parent. For example, in the second half of the nineteenth century, fathers in the United States left their small farms and businesses to seek employment away from home in an emerging industrial economy. While fathers were away from home, mothers were solely responsible for rearing their children. This breadwinning and nurturing dichotomy of parental roles defined parental involvement and was associated with fathers' absence and mothers' caretaking. Thus, father-child interactions were considered unimportant for children's development.

These changes in parental roles and expectations can be linked to four trends: women's increasing labor force participation, the absence of many men from some families, the increased involvement of other fathers in their children's lives, and the increased cultural diversity of American families. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a new ideal of "co-parent" is emerging in which the gender division of labor in domestic and breadwinning responsibilities is less clear. Co-parents must share financial and caregiving tasks and responsibilities equally, and their roles are gender-free.

Father Involvement: What Is It and How Is It Measured?

Attempts to broaden the conceptualization of fatherhood have stimulated considerable debate among researchers, theorists, policymakers, and the public at large regarding the diversity of family types and parental roles. The ecology of family life is continuing to change and thus many children will grow up in the twenty-first century without their biological fathers and/or with stepfathers. It is estimated that one-third of children will spend some time in a non-marital or stepfamily before they reach the age of eighteen. Dissolutions of stepfamilies are also increasing. This complicated family structuring will expose children to situations that demand adjustment to novel and complex relationships with sets of parents and siblings. Different father types—biological, "social," stepfather—will increasingly shape children's attachments, social-emotional competencies, linguistic and cognitive attainments, and orientation to family and work. Theoretical models of parenting must be reformulated to accommodate new family structures as well as culturally diverse conceptions of fatherhood.

Investigators of father involvement have struggled with definitions of what it means to be an "involved father." Father involvement is a multidimensional, continually evolving concept—both at the level of scholarship and at the level of cultural awareness. Although cultural ideals of fatherhood have evolved over time, much of what is understood about parenting (and particularly what is thought of as good parenting) stems from research and theory developed on mothers—the maternal template. In effect, it is a struggle against generational, gender, class, and ethnic biases.

The unidimensional focus of father involvement research (i.e., on the amount of fathering) in the 1970s and 1980s yielded to broader and more inclusive definitions. For example, Michael Lamb and his colleagues, in a 1987 article, distinguished among accessibility—a father's presence and availability to the child, regardless of the actual interactions between father and child; engagement—a father's experience of direct contact, caregiving, and shared interactions with his child; and responsibility—a father's participation in such tasks as selecting a pediatrician and making appointments, selecting child-care settings or babysitters, arranging after-school care and the care of sick children, talking with teachers, and monitoring children's whereabouts and activities. Others have distinguished among the types of activities in which fathers and their children engage (e.g., play, direct care) or between the quantity and quality of care.

Multidimensional constructions of father involvement, however, have not yet been integrated into a comprehensive conceptual framework. The challenge for researchers is to strike a balance between sensitivity to multiple dimensions of father involvement and explanatory parsimony. Questions need to be asked about relations among dimensions of father involvement and how changes to one dimension (e.g., responsibility) affect others (e.g., availability). In addition, it is unclear whether these models capture variation across types of family structure and ethnic/cultural groups. Likewise, researchers must consider father involvement as it operates within a family system that gives it a particular meaning and significance.

What Does Research Say about Father Involvement?

Much of the previous research on fatherhood was motivated by the notion that fatherless families were becoming the norm in the United States. By 1999, almost a quarter of children lived with only their mothers, 4 percent lived with only their fathers, and 4 percent lived with neither of their parents, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. Hence the literature on "absent" fathers has focused mainly on the physically absent (i.e., non-resident father), rather than on the psychologically absent father. This body of research characterizes the father's role as unidimensional—either physically present or not. When one accounts for the distinction between physical versus psychological absence, both the patterns of involvement and the consequences of physical absence are less straightforward. For example, there are little data on the variation of father involvement in intact families. It is also not clear how "absent" men have been from their families. In 1999 Lerman and Sorensen reported that two-thirds of fathers of children born out of wedlock had a substantial amount of contact with at least one nonmarital child. There is also little understanding of the nonfinancial ways that some fathers—especially nonresidential fathers—contribute to their families. Green and Moore reported in 2000 that nonresident low-income fathers often provided financial support informally, rather than through the formal child support enforcement system. Fathers may prefer these less formal systems, because they feel they have more control over how money for the child is spent.

Nevertheless, research consistently shows that children growing up without their father face more difficulties—even when studies control for family income—and are at risk for low school achievement, low involvement in the labor force, early childbearing, and delinquency. Boys growing up without fathers seem especially prone to exhibit problems in the areas of sex-role and gender-identity development, school performance, psychosocial adjustment, and control of aggression. Girls are affected by father-absence too, although the effects on girls may be less enduring, dramatic, and consistent than the effects on boys. Holding race, income, parent's education, and urban residence constant, Harper and McLanahan in 1998 found that boys with nonresident fathers had double the odds of being incarcerated; boys who grew up with a stepfather in the home were at an even higher risk of incarceration, roughly three times that of children who remained with both their natural parents.

Fathers' emotional investment in, attachment to, and provision of resources for their children are associated with the well-being, cognitive development, and social competence of young children even after the effects of such potentially significant confounds as family income, neonatal health, maternal involvement, and paternal age are taken into account. Fathers play an important role in their children's socialization and there are many ways in which fathers influence their children's relationships with peers. In a 2001 publication, Ross and colleagues proposed three different paths that lead to variations in children's peer relationships. These paths include lessons learned in the context of the father-child relationship, fathers' direct advice concerning peer relationships, and fathers' regulation of access to peers and peer-related activity.

In addition, fathers have been found to be important players in the development of children's emotional regulation and control. During middle childhood, paternal involvement in children's schooling in both single-father and two-parent families is associated with greater academic achievement and enjoyment of school by children. For both resident and nonresident fathers, active participation in their children's lives, rather than simply the amount of contact, appears to be formatively important. In adolescence too, stronger and closer attachments to resident biological fathers or stepfathers are associated with more desirable educational, behavioral, and emotional outcomes. High involvement and closeness between fathers and adolescents, rather than temporal involvement per se, protect adolescents from engaging in delinquent behavior and experiencing emotional distress. Thus, both quantity and quality of father involvement combined into the concept of "positive paternal involvement" result in positive child outcomes.

Antecedents of Father Involvement

There is an emerging body of research on the factors that predict positive father involvement. Father involvement is likely affected by multiple interacting systems operating over the life course, including a father's mental health, expectations, family relations, support networks, community and culture, the child's own characteristics, and even public policies.

Paternal depression and aspects of personality have been found to predict the quality of father-infant attachment and interaction. Parenting stress has also been found to be negatively associated with security of father-child relationships, quality of father-infant interactions at four months of age, and father nurturance toward an ill infant.

Related to expectations is the notion of intendedness, that is, the extent to which a father intended or welcomed the birth of his child. There is some evidence that a father's positive parenting may be strongly associated with whether the pregnancy was intended. Unwanted and mistimed childbearing has been linked to negative children's self-esteem.

Mother-father relationships are very important. A father who has a positive relationship with the mother of his child is likely to be more involved in his child's life. Fathers in positive marriages are more likely to have secure infants, positive attitudes toward their children and their role as a parent, and low levels of parenting stress. The father's relationship with other family members, friends, his partner's family, and with members of his own family of origin are also important. In one study, men who received more emotional support from their work and family relations had more secure infants.

A father's economic status clearly affects his ability to provide adequate child support and may ultimately affect his relationship with both his partner and child. More-educated fathers play with and teach their children more than do less-educated fathers, and fathers' academic achievement is associated with the amount of time spent as primary caregivers. A father's job loss is associated with negative outcomes for the child, and fathers in poor and welfare families, particularly those facing chronic poverty, are less involved in their adolescent children's lives.

Little is known, however, about how child characteristics affect a father's reactions to his child and his investment in the father role. A father's involvement may vary with the child's temperament or gender, for instance. Some fathers may find it trying to engage in responsive and reciprocal interactions with babies who have difficult temperaments; others may interact differently with their sons and daughters.

Public policies have an impact on the amount, frequency, and type of father involvement. For some fathers, child support laws, which are not linked to visitation rights, are a deterrent to child contact. Similarly, parental leave policies make it difficult for a father to take time away from work to take care of his child. Most employers do not offer parental leave, and when it is offered, it is unpaid. This lack of support may create a disincentive for men to be more involved in the care of their children.

Research and Good Fathering

Since the 1990s, a new body of research on father-hood has emerged that goes beyond the simple dichotomy of presence versus absence to a deeper understanding of the multidimensional levels of parental involvement that make a difference in children's development. There is enough evidence to suggest that positive and nurturing parental involvement can make an important contribution to the healthy development of children. In addition to providing economic resources for their children, positively involved fathers can make a difference in their children's lives by providing options, being a good role model, and helping them to negotiate complex social interactions. Children who grow up with involved, caring fathers tend to be psychologically better adjusted, engage in less risky behavior, and have healthy relationships with others.

Given that almost a quarter of American children live without a father and that most of these children live in poverty, policymakers and others have placed fathers, especially low-income fathers, on the national spotlight. There is, however, little research on how low-income men interact with their children, how parental involvement alters their own developmental trajectories, and what barriers they need to overcome to become positive influences in their children's lives. This type of information will be crucial for researchers who study antecedents of father involvement and impacts on children, but also for policymakers and educators who promote positive father involvement.



Amato, P. R., and F. Rivera. "Paternal Involvement and Children'sBehavior Problems."Journal of Marriage and Family 61 (1999):375-384.

Axinn, W. G., J. S. Barber, and A. Thornton. "The Long-Term Impact of Parents' Childbearing Decisions on Children's Self-Esteem." Demography 35 (1998):435-443.

Belsky, J. "Parent, Infant, and Social-Contextual Antecedents ofFather-Son Attachment Security." Developmental Psychology 32 (1996):905-913.

Brown, S. S., and L. Eisenberg. The Best Intentions. Washington, DC:National Academy Press, 1995.

Bumpass, Larry L., J. A. Sweet, and T. C. Castro-Martin. "Changing Pattern of Marriage."Journal of Marriage and Family 52 (1990):747-756.

Cox, M. J., M. T. Owen, V. K. Henderson, and N. A. Margand."Prediction of Infant-Father and Infant-Mother Attachment." Child Development 28 (1992):474-483.

Gottman, J. M., L. Katz, and C. Hoover. Meta-emotion. Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997.

Harper, C. C., and S. S. McLanahan. "Father Absence and Youth Incarceration." Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco, CA, 1998.

Hetherington, E. M., and S. H. Henderson. "Fathers in Stepfamilies." In Michael E. Lamb ed., The Role of the Father in Child Development, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley, 1997.

Hetherington, E. M., and M. Stanley-Hagan. "Divorced Fathers:Stress, Coping, and Adjustment." In Michael E. Lamb ed., The Father's Role: Applied Perspectives. New York: Wiley, 1986.

Lamb, Michael E., J. Pleck, E. L. Charnov, and J. A. Levine. "A Biosocial Perspective on Paternal Behavior and Involvement." In J. B. Lancaster, J. Altmann, A. Rossi, and L. R. Sherood eds., Parenting across the Life Span: Biosocial Perspectives. Chicago: Al-dine, 1987.

McBride, B. A. "The Effects of a Parent Education/Play Group Program on Father Involvement in Child Rearing." Family Relations 39 (1990):250-256.

Noppe, Illene C., L. D. Noppe, and F. P. Hughes. "Stress as a Predictor of the Quality of Parent-Infant Interactions." Journal of Genetic Psychology 152 (1991):17-28.

Nord, C., D. A. Brimhall, and J. West. Fathers' Involvement in Their Children's Schools. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, 1997.

Palkovitz, R. "Reconstructing 'Involvement': Expanding Conceptualizations of Men's Caring in Contemporary Families." In Alan J. Hawkins and David C. Dollahite eds., Generative Fathering: Beyond Deficit Perspectives. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.

Parke, Ross D. Fatherhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Parke, Ross D. "Father Involvement: A Developmental Psychological Perspective." Marriage and Family Review 29, no. 4 (2000):43-58.

Parke, Ross D., and Armin A. Brott. Throwaway Dads. Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Perloff, Janet D., and J. Buckner. "Fathers of Children on Welfare:Their Impact on Child Well-Being." American Journal of Ortho-psychiatry 66 (1996):557-571.

Pleck, E. H. "Paternal Involvement: Levels, Sources, and Consequences." In Michael E. Lamb ed., The Role of the Father in Child Development, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley, 1997.

Radin, N. "Primary-Caregiving Fathers in Intact Families." InAdele Eskeles Gottfried and Allen W. Gottfried eds., Redefining Families: Implications for Children's Development. New York: Plenum Press, 1994.

Seltzer, J. A. "Father by Law: Effects of Joint Legal Custody onNonresident Fathers' Involvement with Children." Demography 35, no. 2 (1998):135-146.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Current Population Reports: Growth in Single Fathers Outpaces Growth in Single Mothers (Series P-20 No. 1344). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.

Yongman, M. W., D. Kindlon, and F. Earls. "Father Involvement and Cognitive Behavioral Outcomes of Preterm Infants." Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 343 (1995):58-66.

Natasha J.Cabrera