The Changing Role Of Fathers Today

What does It mean to be a Dad?

The popular media has a tendency to cast modern fathers in one of two stereotypes: “deadbeat dads” or “Mr. Moms.” But recent studies show that over the last four decades, the role of fathers in the modern family has become increasingly complex.

“When we look at current trends in fathering, we see that a lot has changed over the past few generations and that there’s some good news and some bad news,” says Dr. Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). “On the good side, studies show that fathers who have relationships with their kids spend more time with them than their fathers or grandfathers did. The bad news is that more kids than ever are growing up in single-parent homes.”

The Big Picture

Dr. Horn points out that though many men are exhibiting a reawakened sense of their fatherhood, the trend is not exactly new.

“Two hundred years ago, society was more agrarian, and fathers were highly involved in the affairs of their children,” Horn says. “Men primarily farmed and hunted so they tended to be in the home more. Socially, they were seen as the provider, moral guide, and teacher of the children. If their kids grew up to be prosperous adults, it was seen as a reflection on the father. As the industrial era began, fathers spent more time away from home and their role came to be more strictly defined as that of the provider. At this time, American mothers took on the social role of raising the family. Baby Boomers like to think they invented the concept of ‘involved fatherhood,’ but really, fathers have participated significantly in their children’s lives for most of human history.”

Part of the reason many fathers are more involved in their children’s lives today is due to the fact that women have moved into the workforce. In fact, both parents work in more than half (13.8 million) of the two-parent families in America.

“In the ’50s, when men were the primary breadwinners, the responsibilities of the man and woman were divided between work and home,” Horn says. “As more women joined their male partners in the workforce, it became increasingly important that the domestic workload, including the raising of the children, was more evenly distributed.”

Not surprisingly, economic factors play a distinctive role in a father’s ability to spend more time with his children. The frequency with which parents participate in their children’s activities increases as the household income rises. This is somewhat due to the fact that corporations are adopting more family-oriented work arrangements for their employees, and because, in the digital age, more dads telecommute.

The Good, The Bad, and The Lucky

In a Dallas Morning News poll, 75 percent of the fathers said they would trade rapid career advancement for more time with their kids, and the number of dads present at their children’s births has risen from 27 percent in 1974 to nearly 90 percent today.

There’s no doubt that children benefit greatly from having increased interaction with their fathers. Numerous observational studies indicate that children exhibit better cognitive abilities when their fathers are “highly engaged” during the developmental stages of life.

R.D. Parke, author of “Fatherhood,” concludes that this is because kids receive a greater amount of tactile stimulation from their dads. “Fathers are more likely to physically interact with their children when they play,” Parke says. “They tend to be more ‘rough and tumble,’ where mothers are more verbal and toy-mediated in their interaction. Clearly, infants and young children experience not only more stimulation from their fathers, but a qualitatively different and highly stimulatory pattern.”

Studies show that youth rely more on their fathers for factual information and look to their mothers for the day-to-day care and emotional support. A survey of 20,000 families, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, shows that children are twice as likely to receive A’s in school when their fathers are involved in their education.

Unfortunately, according to the NFI, an estimated 27.3 million children live to absent their biological fathers, and estimates are that at least half of all children in America will spend some time in a single-parent family before they’re 18. More disturbing is the fact that, according to the National Commission on Children, 40 percent of kids from broken families haven’t seen their fathers at all in the last year.

The profundity of these trends is starkly apparent when you consider U.S. Census figures from the past 40 years: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 80 percent of the children from the post-war generation grew up in a family with two biological parents who remained married throughout their childhood. Since then, the proportion of children living in one-parent homes has risen from nine percent in 1960, to over 39 percent in 1996. The number of currently divorced adults in the United States has quadrupled in the past 15 years (17.6 million in 1995, up from 4.3 million in 1970) and, according to the 1990 Survey of Income and Program Participation, 88 percent of these custodial parents are mothers.

No matter how you cut it, today’s parents are facing considerably different circumstances than their parents did. As Dan Canady, a boomer-era father of five from Colorado, says, “When I was a kid, my parents had the ‘wait until dad gets home’ mentality. My father wasn’t really involved in my upbringing, except as a disciplinarian. Though it’s not always easy, I’m doing my best to change that for my own kids.”

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