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Fathers – How Involved Are They in their Children’s Lives – and Why It Matters

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January 28, 2015

Less than half, or 46 percent, of U.S. children younger than 18 are living in a home with two married parents in their first marriage, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of government data – a sharp decline from 73 percent in 1960.

This decline is troubling in light of many studies that demonstrate a strong correlation between at-home dads and positive outcomes for children.  Those outcomes includeincreased academic success as well as less crime, delinquency, substance abuse and poverty than for kids with no father in the home.

But today there are many family arrangements besides the traditional family. What is the current status of fathers’ involvement with their children in these alternative family arrangements?

The National Center for Health Statistics examined this question. In a December 2013 study it used a broad definition of a father. Men were defined as fathers if they had biological or adopted children or if a step- or a partner’s children were living in the household. It found that 27 percent of fathers lived apart from at least some of their children. These dads, as might be expected, were far less involved in caring for these children than for those living with them.

Between 2006 and 2010, for example, 72 percent of fathers who lived with their children under age five fed or ate meals with them daily during the last four weeks – compared with only 7.9 percent of fathers living apart from their kids. Eighty-one percent of dads with youngsters at home played with them compared to only ten percent with children living elsewhere.

Other researchers examined the involvement of co-habiting fathers with their children over time. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study by Princeton and Columbia Universities found that most unmarried fathers are “very involved during pregnancy and immediately after the birth.” They provide some support and say they want to help raise the child. But after five years, just 35 percent still live with the mother of their child. By the time the child is five years old, only half of nonresident fathers had seen their child in the last month.

In addition, once the unmarried father has left, many single mothers end up with a new partner, and in 14 percent of these cases a new baby is born. The instability of family relationships with multiple partners, the study found, can be especially troubling for children.

Lack of involvement by fathers has also been found to produce poor consequences for sons and daughters in other ways. In “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” researchers from the School of Medicine, University of California San Francisco and the Center for Child-Wellbeing, Princeton University found that boys raised by a single parent were more than twice as likely to end up in prison or jail, even after controlling for poverty, race and other factors. This 2004 study suggested a father’s distance from his teen son’s development presents a risk for negative expressions of the adolescent’s autonomy.

A father’s absence is also “an overriding risk factor” for his daughter’s “early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy,” according to a National Institutes of Health report. Daughters of fathers who left before they were five years old were about five times more likely to experience an adolescent pregnancy than were father-present girls, the 2003 study reported. This is especially troubling, the report stated, because “adolescent childbearing is associated with lower educational and occupational attainment, more mental and physical health problems, inadequate social support networks for parenting and increased risk of abuse and neglect for children born to teen mothers.”

What can be done?

For a start, in light of the many government studies showing the strong behavioral, economic, educational and social advantages for children when fathers are in the home, public policy should support stable marriages – including changing tax policies that penalize marriage. And pastoral leaders, while recognizing the “exemplary efforts of many single parents,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states, should “promote loving, faithful and committed marriages as the best gift that parents can give to their children.”