You might think that the state of fatherhood in this country is abysmal, or you might believe it looks good and dads are more involved in their children’s lives than ever before.
In either case, you would be right. Both of these statements are accurate at the same time. But more of us need to understand why. Doing so will help children get the most out of life.
Newspaper articles, magazine features and blog posts decrying the number of absentee dads are plentiful. Their concerns are borne out by research showing that more and more fathers are breaking up with their children’s mothers — if they are even partnered with them in the first place — and having children with multiple partners. These things dramatically increase the likelihood that fathers will have little consistent contact with their kids.
At the same time, there are newspaper articles, magazine features and blog posts glorifying today’s “new” dad, who is much more involved in his children’s lives than his father was in his. Again, such pieces are grounded in research demonstrating how fathers are getting up in the night to feed infants, reading to young children and managing older children’s educations, among other things. Such involvement promotes the health and well-being of children and adolescents.
Unfortunately, many children who have little contact with their fathers already are disadvantaged, or poor and isolated. Not having a father makes that worse. Conversely, many children with involved fathers already are advantaged with a good financial foundation and access to high-achieving schools. Their fathers’ presence compounds those advantages. As a result, the gap grows between the haves and have nots.
These growing inequalities have inspired action. But efforts to do something face an uphill climb. Programs to increase the number of fathers living with their children have not seen much success, and they do not go far enough — being present is good, but being involved is better.
Programs directly targeting fathers’ involvement, in turn, also face barriers. These barriers are practical and cultural. Getting involved takes time that many fathers do not think they have. And lingering views of parenting as feminine discourage even enlightened men from trying.
How do we make progress? Two ways provide a good start.
First, family-focused programs to increase paternal involvement cannot succeed without changes in policies that are work-focused.
Most fathers want to be involved, but work won’t let them. I say this as a father who feels that conflict between job and family. Paid parental leave policies are a start, but many men don’t take the full time. They fear that taking leave will cost them at work. Quebec might provide the best example of what to do.
The Canadian province created a leave program specifically for fathers. An analysis for the Council on Contemporary Families showed that this policy change increased how much time men took off after the birth of a child and how involved they were at home.
For those fathers who are in insecure jobs with poor or no benefits or are in and out of jobs, money is often more important than time. They see the question of whether to take leave as “rich people problems.” We need to design policies that support parents in more lines of work and that address the economic instability that keeps many on the sidelines.
Second, even when fathers want to be involved, they may not know what they are doing.
Unlike women, men rarely receive lifelong socialization into the role of being a parent. Troublingly, they are often discouraged from engaging in some parenting tasks. Consequently, parenting is a skill that men need to develop. That is what happened to me, and I still feel clueless sometimes. Psychologists have designed parenting education programs to help facilitate positive parenting skills, and these programs could be better tailored to the special needs of fathers.
It is a worthy cause to give fathers the help that they need to stick around and get involved. It might take a lot of time and effort, but that help would be good for fathers, good for children and good for society.
Robert Crosnoe is chair of the Department of Sociology and a research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of the Texas at Austin. He is also the deputy editor of the Journal of Marriage and Family and president-elect of the Society for Research on Adolescence.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, McAllen Monitor, Corpus Christi Caller Times, Fort Worth Star Telegram and Austin American Statesman.
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