June 15, 2016
Father’s Day is a time to pause and think about the many ways that dads make a difference in their children’s lives. Research shows that fathers’ positive engagement can improve child well-being whether they live full-time with their children or not. Fatherhood is a complex and evolving concept, but there are some things we know for sure about its value for kids:
Fathers are more likely to use advanced language around young kids, which promotes vocabulary development. Fathers also tend to prioritize rough-and-tumble play, letting kids explore, and playing more than caretaking, which establish independence and positive social skills. Positive father engagement has been linked to better outcomes on measures of child well-being, such as cognitive development, educational achievement, self-esteem, and pro-social behavior.
Fatherhood and fathering is central to many men’s lives, though these experiences are increasingly diverse. Today’s U.S. fathers take care of their children more than most fathers did a generation ago. Father-child interactions range from soothing infants and toddlers to participating in activities that stimulate their children’s development, such as reading and telling stories and helping with homework. They also provide emotional support and guidance to their adolescents.
The popular notion of the “deadbeat dad” suggests that dads who do not live with their children try to avoid paying for them. However, in 2013, 74 percent of eligible mothers received either full or partial child support payments. Fathers often provide this support while navigating various obstacles, such as a lack of stable employment or housing, payments for children in multiple households, or struggles after incarceration.
This money is a safety net for many families. Children who live with one parent are about twice as likely to live in poverty (28.8 percent) than the general population (14.5 percent). Child support payments lifted approximately one million people out of poverty in 2012. Fathers also provide other types of financial support that benefit child well-being: about half (51 percent) of noncustodial parents (the vast majority of whom are fathers) provide their children’s health insurance, and 60 percent of fathers provide some type of non-cash support, such as gifts, clothes, food, medical expenses, or child care.
Resident fathers are more involved in their children’s lives now than ever before, but when fathers don’t live with their kids, their level of involvement varies greatly. This is partly because parents’ co-parenting relationship—how well they work together to raise their child—often declines when they break up. Cooperation as co-parents is a strong predictor of a father’s involvement—as strong as his earlier parenting behaviors. To keep nonresident fathers connected to their children, it’s important to foster a cooperative co-parenting relationship with their child’s other caregiver, who may limit the father’s access to their joint children.
Although there are many community-based programs that focus on supporting moms, practitioners have realized fathers’ needs and their importance.
Many programs directly serve fathers themselves and incorporate lessons on parenting, co-parenting, and healthy relationships. Others help with professional skill-building and job searching, and have been shown to improve fathers’ employment rates. The federal government recently funded nearly 50 organizations across the United States to provide these types of so-called Responsible Fatherhood activities, emphasizing the importance of improving and supporting fathers’ relationships with their children.
Elizabeth Karberg, Research Scientist; Kimberly Turner, Research Scientist; Shawn Teague, Research Analyst; April Wilson, Research Scientist; Mindy Scott, Deputy Program Area Director of Reproductive Health and Family Formation