Through program practitioners’ day-to-day work with fathers, they are given a unique window into the ways fathers shape their children’s development. However, it is also important to step back and dig into the research from time to time in order to keep up with any new findings around how and why dads are so vital to children’s lives. There is always something new to learn in the field of father involvement and children’s development—as practitioners, researchers, and (many of us) dads ourselves.
First, when we revisit the literature about fathers’ involvement, we need to define: what do we mean when we talk about fathers? The definition of who is a “father” has grown and developed alongside the field of fatherhood programming. We could be referring to a biological father or a stepfather, custodial or non-custodial, with a legal relationship to the child or a social one (e.g., a mother’s partner). Each has his own way of shaping the development of a child depending on when he comes into that child’s life and the amount of time he spends with the child on a regular basis. What matters most for a father’s relationship with his children is not the specific type of family situation, but how the father chooses to involve himself in the life and well-being of his child.
Second, the literature informs the question: what is the role of the father in the family? The literature indicates that the image of an ideal dad and notions of a father’s role in the family are diverse, and to a large extent, shaped by cultural and demographic factors. This is especially important to keep in mind for fatherhood practitioners, who should strive for cultural sensitivity and competence. The way a dad sees himself or his position in the family may vary greatly from family to family, and the way you work with or relate to that dad should take his perspective into account.
Third, the literature continues to track the following question: in what ways are fathers involved in their families, and how is this changing? Fathers as a whole are more actively involved in the lives of their children now than they were 50 years ago. In 2016, fathers reported spending, on average, eight hours a week on child care—about three times more than in 1965. While dads previously may have been seen primarily as breadwinners, they are increasingly sharing parenting responsibilities with mothers. This increased involvement could look like any, and often all, of the following:
- Positive engagement: direct interaction with children, including caregiving and activities
- Accessibility: availability to children
- Responsibility: participation in decision-making and ensuring that children are cared for
While each family balances these dimensions differently, we know that the quality of father involvement and engagement is just as, if not more, important than quantity when we talk about positive impacts on child development. Fathers can increase the quality of their involvement through many different means, including showing affection, teaching and communicating effectively, providing emotional support, sharing interests, and sharing activities. Research shows that, on average, fathers tend to be more involved in play than mothers. Furthermore, they tend to play differently than mothers do—engaging in more physical and challenging games and encouraging independence and risk-taking.
Positive father involvement has been associated again and again with better social, emotional, and cognitive outcomes for children at all ages. The linked research articles show that it is correlated with higher self-esteem, emotional security, academic achievement, school readiness, and math and verbal skills.
As the research supporting the impact fathers have on their children’s development continues to grow, so does the work of the NRFC! To learn more and continue the conversation, visit fatherhood.gov and stay tuned for additional resources from the field.
- Fatherhood Research & Practice Network
- National Fatherhood Initiative
- Child & Family Research Partnership: 5 Things You Should Know about the Importance of Fathers
- The Unique Contributions of Fathers to Their Children’s Development webinar recording
- Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison