Making the Case for Fathers

fathers-day-2013Father’s Day is approaching, and as child and family researchers (and as a mother and possible future mother), we’re concerned about the future of fathers. When a recent poll shows that 2 out of 5 unmarried women under age 50 would consider parenting a child alone, it raises important questions and concerns. Why would so many women think parenting is easy enough to “go it alone”? How can four hands and two brains not be the default position for parenting?

Research findings support the notion that the presence of a loving and nurturing father improves outcomes for children, families, and communities. A separate but highly-related research field has also identified the importance of stable two-parent families and positive parent relationships for child well-being. However, recent trends in family formation such as increases in nonmarital childbearing and high divorce rates have contributed to increasing rates of single motherhood, father absence and multiple-partner fertility (MPF) – or the process of having biological children with more than one partner. These changes to the family, combined with significant economic and cultural shifts, limit many fathers’ opportunities to be involved in positive ways in their children’s lives.

A number of Responsible Fatherhood initiatives have been developed by the federal government to address these challenges and to promote fatherhood and enhance family relationships. The aim of the Responsible Fatherhood initiatives has been to help fathers overcome barriers that impede them from becoming effective and nurturing parents—while helping them improve their relationships with their children. However, despite decades of support for new fatherhood initiatives, the country is still facing many of the same challenges that were identified in the Young Unwed Fathers report published in 1986. Are we going backward to move forward?

Some of the key inferences and conclusions that emerged from the Young Unwed Fathers report include:
1. At a minimum, unwed fathers should establish paternity and provide financial support in order to meet their rights and obligations as fathers.
2. It is generally in the best interests of children if their fathers develop a personal relationship with them and this should be encouraged.
3. Fathers’ responsibilities and interests need to be balanced against the rights and needs of the young mothers, family members, and society as a whole.
4. Young unwed fathers often need considerable assistance and encouragement to be able to fulfill their parenting responsibilities, including acquiring job skills and being provided with employment opportunities.
5. Increasing the job skills and opportunities of young unwed fathers not only benefits their children, but society as a whole.
6. Many different sectors of society at national, state, and local levels will need to work together to meet the challenge of encouraging more responsible and involved parenting among unwed fathers.

Since 1986, the government and private sector has expanded its fatherhood focus through the development of programs that encourage and support marriage, especially among low-income, “fragile” families. Yet in recent years, results from rigorous evaluations of these “strengthening families” programs have been underwhelming, with little or no positive impacts on marriage, child well-being and father involvement.

It seems clear we still have a lot to learn about how best to reach this vulnerable population of families. Yet if a sizable proportion of women are less likely to seek out men to co-parent their children (regardless of whether they choose to marry), what does that say about our efforts to encourage and support two-parent child rearing among vulnerable families and within all family types? A key theme at a Responsible Fatherhood Capitol Hill Briefing held this week was that men also struggle to know how to be a father, in part due to the lack of role models in their lives. We need to do a better job of defining the roles and expectations of fathers as a way to support men’s greater involvement with their families and children.

Although there are numerous fatherhood programs that strive to meet the various needs of diverse groups of fathers and families, the field of Responsible Fatherhood has not collectively identified a standard or “best” model for serving fathers and families, which has contributed to lack of clarity about what a Responsible Fatherhood program should look like and what it should be doing. But still, we are optimistic that future research and evaluation efforts will advance our understanding of effective programs that can successfully meet the needs of diverse types of fathers and families, and will help to reconnect fathers with families in ways that benefit children and fathers alike.

So as we wish all fathers a happy Father’s Day, let’s be sure to recognize and celebrate fathers’ unique contributions to their children.

Karin Malm, Program Area Director
Mindy Scott, Senior Research Scientist

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