The idea that there is a single definition of “family” has changed. There are single career as well as dual career families, two parent as well as single parent families, 'intact' as well as blended families, married as well as unmarried cohabiting parents, heterosexual as well as same sex parents, single race as well as interracial families, two as well as three generational families. To a greater extent than ever before, individuals can choose whether to form a family on their own or in a cohabiting relationship or in a marriage.

As customs change, notions of the role of fathers in the family are changing. Fathers were formerly thought of primarily as breadwinners, dispensers of discipline and authority, and sports trainer, but these stereotypes are fading. It is no longer assumed that mothers are better equipped by nature to be caregivers. Fathers are now more involved in pregnancy, birth, infant care, and stay involved as the child grows older. They take time off during pregnancy, attend pre-natal classes, and some take advantage of paternity leave.

Many children, however, do not live with their fathers. More children are likely to live in single-parent families at some time in their childhood than ever before.  This fact is due to several trends. The number of U.S. adults who are likely to marry is higher, but so is the number likely to divorce. In 2006, more than 50 percent of all births to women under the age of 30 were outside of marriage. Fifty years ago, this figure was a mere 6 percent.

How do these changes affect kids? What do kids need for healthy development?

Children do best when they have a consistent, caring relationship with a responsible adult. They do best when parents:

  • show affection
  • are responsive to children's needs
  • encourage children to do well
  • give everyday assistance
  • provide supervision
  • exercise non-coercive discipline
  • serve as role models of positive behaviors

What kind of family is most likely to provide children with these parenting attributes?

Whether or not parents are married, it is important for children to have relationships with both of their parents. Moreover, many studies show that men, either fathers or male role models, are a crucial ingredient in their children’s healthy development.  Whether a biological father, or male role model (stepfather, uncle, grandfather, mentor) and whether or not the father lives in the same home as the child, they are an essential part of a child's life and divorce or separation need  not change this.

When kids have two parents (biological or otherwise) in their lives they have better  access to the networks of both parents, including grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends of the family, work colleagues, community organizations, and faith communities. Fathers and mothers, or other partners provide bridges to all these aspects of the outside social world.

Why is dad so important?

Father involvement has a unique impact on children’s development. Many studies conclude that children with highly-involved fathers or male role models, in comparison to children with less- involved fathers, benefit in a wide range of abilities and attitudes. They demonstrate:

  • better school performance, increased self-esteem, more appropriate social and family relationships, greater empathy and healthier gender role development
  • improved cognitive skills such as intelligence, reasoning and language
  • increased curiosity and less fear in new situations
  • greater tolerance for stress and frustration
  • reduced behavioral problems in boys and fewer psychological problems in young women
  • less likelihood to smoke and to get into trouble with the police
  • higher levels of education
  • better friendships with children of both genders

Also among the long-term benefits are the findings that adult women have better relationships with partners and a greater sense of mental and physical well being if they had a good relationship with their own father at age 16.

Studies have shown that when fathers are affectionate and helpful, their children are more likely to get on well with their brothers and sisters. When fathers are emotionally involved with their children - that is, they acknowledge their children's emotions and help them deal with negative emotions - the children score higher on tests of 'emotional intelligence.' In addition, they tend to have better relationships with other children and behave less aggressively.

Dads are not moms

Mothers and fathers bring different strengths and styles to their parenting roles. These roles complement each other; they are not interchangeable and each is an important ingredient for healthy childrearing. Often the mother’s relationship with her children is improved by the active role of the father. The relationships that children observe and experience at an early age influence their own relationships later in life. Family relationships are interrelated - the way that mothers and fathers interact affects the mother-child relationship as well as the father-child relationship.

As fathers' roles change, they have begun to take on the role of teacher, homework consultant, and role model, among many, many others. When they are involved with school and community activities, help with homework, coach or play a game, make time for family outings to museums, libraries, zoos, concerts, their child’s development is enhanced.

"Research has shown that fathers, no matter what their income or cultural background, can play a critical role in their children’s education. When fathers are involved, their children learn more, perform better in school, and exhibit healthier behavior. Even when fathers do not share a home with their children, their active involvement can have a lasting and positive impact" (U.S. Dept. of Education "A Call to Commitment: Father's Involvement in Children's Learning").

Conclusions

The changes in society - technological, economic, and ideological - over the past several decades have redefined the family and the role of fathers. More women are now in the workforce; planning for child care is more difficult as families move and they can no longer depend on relatives for help; more divorced fathers assume or share custody of their children and more children reside in single parent homes. Regardless of living arrangements, when fathers are actively involved in parenting, their children benefit.

Date Updated: June 9, 2010