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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.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3Fathers - History And Background Of Father Involvement, Father Involvement: What Is It And How Is It Measured?