It doesn’t surprise me that a recent government study shows American fathers are active parents.
The study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concludes fathers bathe, diaper and dress their children, read to them, help them with homework and take them to their activities.
The study is just one more pin-hole in the mythical balloon of the detached father. For nearly two centuries American fathers shared child rearing responsibilities working on their farms and in their shops side by side with their sons, and sometimes daughters. That changed with the second industrial revolution (1840-1870) when fathers seized the opportunity to improve the financial situation of their families and began working long hours in factories located in large cities.
The Greatest Generation was the last generation of the stereotypical father as sole bread winner and mother as housewife. Women’s rights and a change from a manufacturing to a service economy saw more women from the Baby Boomer generation move into the workplace and that trend continues today, necessitating a change in a father’s role.
The study, conducted from 2006 to 2010, measured child rearing involvement of 10,403 men aged 15-44. It measured interaction between residential and non-residential fathers and their children in two age groups: those under age five and those five to 18. For the younger group, the study looked at the frequency men ate meals with or fed their children, played with them, read to them or bathed, diapered or dressed them. For the older group, the study looked at talking with their children about their day, eating meals with them, helping with homework and taking them to their activities.
Naturally, fathers who lived with their children showed a greater level of involvement, but surprisingly, non-custodial fathers were not totally absent.
The study concludes fathers who lived with their biological children age five and under did the following daily or several times a week:
• 96 percent fed or ate meals with them;
• 90 percent bathed, diapered or dressed them;
• 98 percent played with them;
• 60 percent read to them.
Fathers who lived with their biological children ages 5 to 18 also showed these levels of involvement daily or several times a week:
• 93 percent ate meals with them;
• 55 percent took their children to their activities;
• 93 percent talked to their children about what happened in their day;
• 63 percent helped with homework.
These involvement categories were chosen because previous research has shown them to have a relation to positive outcomes. Active fathers can increase the chances of academic success and reduce the chances of delinquency and drug abuse.
Two parent households tend to be more stable than single parent and married parents more stable than co-habiting parents. Children growing up in married families tend to be physically and emotionally healthier. A 2005 study conducted for Princeton University by Paul R. Amato concludes children who grow up in stable two-parent families have a higher standard of living, receive more effective parenting, experience more co-operative co-parenting, are emotionally closer to both parents and are subjected to fewer stressful events and circumstances.
As you might expect step-fathers and co-habiting fathers are involved less and single fathers even less so. Two surprising results stuck out: a higher number of black fathers who lived with their biological children helped with homework every day for a four-week period and they were also more likely than whites or Hispanics to bathe, diaper and dress their small children every day. No explanation was given and researchers stated the sample size was too small to draw conclusions however black men have a higher rate of unemployment so that could be one reason for greater involvement.
All fathers want to leave behind a better person than the one they see in the mirror. Changing the stereotype of the detached father will take many years. But this study offers a glimpse into today’s quiet reality, one that isn’t evident on the six-o-clock news or one that isn’t distorted through pop culture.