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Fathers Matter

By Cynthia Osborne
Read Time: 5 Minutes

Fathers play an important and unique role in the lives of their children. Children with involved fathers do better on nearly every measurable short-term and long-term outcome, including outcomes related to health, education, and emotional well-being.

By father involvement, we generally refer to three concepts: accessibility, engagement, and responsibility.

  • Accessibility refers to fathers seeing their children and spending meaningful time with them.
  • Engagement refers to fathers playing and interacting with their children in ways that stimulate healthy brain development and lead to strong bonds.
  • Responsibility refers to fathers caring for their children's needs, including their children's financial and health needs, as well as appropriate rule setting and discipline.

Each of these behaviors promotes healthy child development, and the absence of them can lead to negative outcomes for children, including such things as poorer school performance, higher rates of criminal behavior, an increased rate of unplanned pregnancies, and poorer emotional well-being.

Today, approximately two out of five children are born to unmarried parents. Approximately half of these children's parents are living together at their child's birth, and many have high expectations of remaining together and even getting married. However, most of these children will experience their parents' separation by the time they are five years old, and over half of all children will spend some time over their childhood without living with their biological father.

Bonding starts right after childbirth

Fathers vary considerably in the roles they play in their children's lives and in their level of needs that challenge their role as father. For example, some fathers are actively engaged in their children's lives and have a strong romantic and co-parenting relationship with their child's mother, whereas other fathers may have had very little contact with their child or their child's mother in several years, yet they strive to reconnect.

Father involvement across a child's life course is important, but it is especially important in a child's earliest years. In fact, father absence at birth is one of the biggest predictors of negative birth outcomes as it is usually a signal that the parents are not in a supportive relationship, and the mother has experienced little support and social isolation during pregnancy - factors that lead to poor birth outcomes and high rates of maternal stress and emotional discord.

The first three years of a child's life are the most sensitive for the developing brain and body. A father's absence during this important period can lead to hardships for the family that may include financial challenges, maternal stress, and limited caregiver-child stimulation and attachment. Exposure to ongoing challenges early in life can impact a child's brain development and place unhealthy strains on the developing body, which have lifelong negative consequences.

Value of a Dad

Father involvement is driven by a host of factors, but five factors have the strongest influence on whether fathers will be actively engaged in their children's lives:

  1. The co-parenting relationship the father has with the mother of his children.
  2. Confidence in his parenting skills.
  3. His sense of self and value as a man and a father.
  4. His ability to provide financially for his child.
  5. His involvement in risky behaviors that may bring harm to his children.

Each of these is discussed briefly below.

Engagement is key in building dad and child bonds

1. The Father-Mother Co-Parenting Relationship

For unmarried fathers in particular, a positive co-parenting relationship with their child's mother is strongly associated with both the quantity and quality of father involvement. When mothers support fathers' relationships with their children and parents can cooperate with and support one another in raising their child, fathers see their children more, engage in more activities with them, and have more positive relationships with them.

The quality of parents' relationships also matters: mothers who have positive relationships with their children's fathers are more likely to have positive co-parenting relationships with them. As a result, fathers who are in romantic relationships with their children's mothers are consistently more likely to be involved with their children and to have higher-quality involvement than fathers who have no relationship with their children's mothers.

Parenting is a Great Job

2. Parenting Skills and Confidence

Fathers' parenting skills and confidence are also important predictors of father involvement. When fathers feel competent and believe that they can parent well, they spend more time with their children, take on more caretaking responsibilities, and engage more positively with their children. Increasing the amount of time they spend with their children allows fathers to develop their parenting skills, which is linked to increased involvement.

Spending time together can be as easy as reading a book.

3. Positive Sense of Self and Value as a Father

Fathers who have positive beliefs about fatherhood and the importance of father involvement are more engaged with their children. On an individual level, fathers who understand and value their identity as fathers are more involved with their children and have higher-quality relationships with them. Research also suggests that men with more self-esteem and who believe that men and women both have an equal role to play in raising children are more involved with their children because they are more willing to take part in caregiving and nurturing.

Fathering and views of fathering are shaped in part by the community, including cultural norms, social support, and institutional practices. Community cultures that express that fathers are valuable and equal co-parents contribute to fathers' positive beliefs about fatherhood.

First-Time Dad

4. Economic Stability

Economic stability is linked to fathers' involvement with their children, particularly among fathers who view their role as a father as the provider. Among fathers who live with their children, men who are unemployed or feel that they are inadequate providers are less involved with their children and use fewer positive parenting behaviors.

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5. Risky Behaviors

There are also a number of risk factors that predict lower father involvement. Fathers with a history of incarceration, abusive behavior, or drug and alcohol problems are less likely to have positive interactions or maintain contact with their children over time, which may be in the best interest of the child. Other risk factors for low father involvement include having children with multiple partners, depression, stress, unintended pregnancy or low prenatal involvement, and young age at the birth of the child. However, fathers' resilience (e.g., employment, completion of education, family and social support) in the context of these risk factors is often associated with fathers' involvement with their children.

Dads make a difference at all stages in a child’s life.

As a society we recognize the important and unique contributions fathers make to their children's well-being, and that these contributions extend beyond merely providing financial resources to the household but actually lead to better child well-being across the life span. Finding ways to continue enhancing, supporting, and nurturing the five factors that have the strongest influence on healthy father involvement will have long-term benefits for the child and family.

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Cynthia Osborne

Cynthia Osborne, Ph.D

Dr. Cynthia Osborne is the associate dean for academic strategies and director of the Center for Health and Social Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Learn more about the author.

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