More than Breadwinners: The Myriad Ways in Which Fathers Contribute to Family Well-Being No. 46, June 14, 2013

The accumulating social scientific evidence on fathers shows a multidimensional impact on family well- being, from wages to children’s school outcomes to family stability. In particular, findings suggest that a key factor is the father’s marital status. On average, parents and children tend to fare best when the father resides in the home and is married to the mother of his children.

�� Marriage, fatherhood, and men’s wages. Marriage and fatherhood are correlated with men’s wages. A 2013 study that analyzed a nationally representative sample of men, focusing on their marital and fatherhood status, found that both marriage and fatherhood were associated with a wage premium.1 Among men without children, on average, married men earned 7.3 percent more than single men, while men in cohabiting relationships earned 5.4 percent more; divorced men’s wages did not appear to differ from those of single childless men. Fatherhood added to the marriage premium. Compared to married men without children, married fathers averaged 3.7 percent higher wages. However, unmarried fathers who lived with their families did not average higher wages. In other words, living together did not boost unmarried fathers’ wages; it was marriage that was linked to a higher average wage for fathers. Moreover, the marriage premium for fathers was associated only with married biological fathers, not stepfathers. Overall, the study found that, compared to single men without children, non-fathers in cohabitating relationships averaged 5 percent higher in wages; married men without children, 7 percent; and married fathers who lived with their families, 11 percent. This married fatherhood premium applied regardless of race and ethnicity or education level. Exploring the factors that may explain the married, residential, biological father premium, the study found that selection (i.e., the theory that qualities that enhance men’s propensity to marry and become fathers also increase their earning abilities) did not appear to explain the higher wages. Instead, married fathers’ clear commitment to their families as husbands and fathers and their perceived role as providers may have contributed to their higher wages. Furthermore, a small part of the premium may also be explained by productivity-related employment factors and family dynamics associated with mothers’ employment status. Marriage also appears to contribute to fathers’ relationships with mothers, their own mental health, and overall family stability.

�� Married fathers and relationship quality. In urban America, marital status is strongly correlated with relationship quality for both fathers and mothers.2 Married fathers and mothers reported, on average, better relationship quality and greater support from their partners than did unmarried fathers and mothers.

�� Marriage and fathers’ mental health. In a study that focused on the mental health of urban fathers, those who had always been married to the mothers of their children reported, on average, higher levels of self-rated health and psychological well-being, compared to fathers who remained single or in cohabiting relationships through the first five years of fatherhood.3

�� Married fathers and family stability. Young children experienced the most family stability when they were born to mothers who were married to their fathers. In a study that examined urban families, by age three, more than one in two children born to parents who were in cohabiting relationships had experienced parental breakups.4 In contrast, only one in 10 children born to married mothers and fathers experienced parental divorces. Accounting for a host of family and parental background factors, the risk of family breakup
by the time a child turned three was more than two-and-a-half times greater for children born to cohabiting parents at the time of their birth relative to those born to married fathers and mothers. The research also suggests that fathers’ involvement and presence are crucial to their children’s schooling outcomes throughout their childhoods.

�� Fathers’ supportive parenting and young children’s cognitive outcomes. In a study that focused on a sample of diverse low-income families with the fathers present in the home, fathers’ interaction with their two-year-olds was correlated with the children’s social and cognitive development at that age as well as a year later.5 Two-year-olds whose fathers accurately perceived their signals and responded appropriately, displayed love, respect, and admiration for them, taught them, and actively tried to expand their knowledge and abilities demonstrated higher cognitive and social skills than did peers whose fathers were not as strong on these parenting dimensions. One year later, the children who received more sensitive, positive, and stimulation parenting from their fathers continued, on average, to display higher cognitive and social skills as well as verbal ability. This association between young children’s outcomes and fathers’ parenting accounted for the quality of mothers’ parenting, significant demographic characteristics, parents’ education level, and father’s income, and it still persisted.

�� Parental supportiveness and young children’s language and math skills. In a study that focused on a sample of diverse low-income families that participated in Head Start programs, five-year- olds who received supportive parenting from both mothers and fathers had, in general, the highest average scores on language and math tests compared to peers of just moms or just dads who demonstrated supportive parenting
as well as to those who had neither supportive mothers nor supportive fathers.6 It appeared that children benefited the most when both parents were sensitive to their signals, held them in loving and positive regard, and provided stimulating interactions.

Fathers’ parenting and children’s school readiness. Drawing from a sample of families from 10 geographically diverse sites in the U.S.,
a longitudinal study analyzed the relationship between fathers’ and mothers’ parenting and children’s school readiness.7 Although the sample was not wholly representative of the general population (the families were more likely to be educated, Caucasian, and intact), it was national
in scope. Analyzing teachers’ reports of children’s academic and social development, the study found that kindergartners of fathers who provided more positive regard to their children and emotional support in their parenting tended to exhibit greater social readiness. Moreover, the study found that fathers’ parenting mattered more—that is, it offered some buffer—for kindergartners’ and first graders’ academic and social school readiness when their mothers were less supportive.

�� Time with dad and adolescent well-being. Analyzing a sample of middle-class, dual-earner families, a 2013 study found that, on average, adolescents who spent time with fathers doing leisure activities, such as playing games, talking, visiting friends, and engaging in outdoor or athletic activities, reported being more engaged in and enjoying the activities.8 Eating meals just with the fathers was also associated with the adolescents’ being more engaged in the activities; feeling less angry, irritated, and frustrated; and experiencing less stress. Indeed, adolescents who spent more mealtime with both parents together reported, on average, feeling more cheerful, happy, and good about themselves; less angry, irritated, frustrated; and less stressed.

�� Fathers’ presence and adolescent schooling outcomes. The stability of fathers’ presence in the homes mattered for adolescents’ schooling outcomes.9 Teens who experienced changes in their fathers’ presence in the home during early childhood reported, on average, lower grades. Those who experienced changes later in their childhoods were more likely to receive school disciplinary actions. The research also seems to suggest that fathers’ religious involvement could bolster their family life and engagement with their children.

    Fathers’ religious involvement and relationship quality. In urban America, fathers’ religious involvement was strongly correlated with the quality of their relationships with the mothers 
of their children.10 Compared to fathers who consistently attended religious services less than once a week, those who attended at least weekly reported, on average, higher relationship quality with and greater support from the mothers. These associations took into consideration mothers’ religious participation as well as other sociodemographic background factors. In fact, the effect of fathers’ religious attendance on relationship quality was stronger than the effects of most sociodemographic factors analyzed in the study.

 Parents’ relationship quality and fathers’ engagement. A 2011 study that focused on a representative sample of urban families found that the quality of the parents’ relationship appeared to affect engagement with their children.11 For both mothers and fathers, couples who reported better relationship quality—as measured by being fair and willing to compromise, showing affection or love, not insulting or criticizing, encouraging and helping, listening, and really understanding hurts and joys—were more likely to engage with their children from infancy to toddlerhood to preschool in activities such as singing songs, reading and telling stories, and playing with toys and games.

�� Fathers’ religious involvement and youth activities. In a nationally representative study, fathers who attended religious services more frequently spent, on average, more time later on as participants, advisors, coaches, or leaders in youth- related activities such as school events, community or religious youth groups, and sports activities. This relationship accounted for a range of family, sociodemographic, and geographic characteristics.

The research is compelling: Fathers matter. Their commitment to and involvement in their families promote long-term parental and child well-being. Importantly, marriage and religious participation appear to contribute positively to family dynamics and fathers’ involvement as well. Policies that support the family should focus on building fatherhood and healthy marriages.

For Further Information:

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            �� children-are-born-to-unwed-mothers


1  Alexandra Killewald, “A Reconsideration of the Fatherhood Premium: Marriage, Coresidence, Biology and Fathers’ Wages,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 78, No. 1 (February 2013), pp. 96–116.

2  Nicholas H. Wolfinger and W. Bradford Wilcox, “Happily Ever After? Religion, Marital Status, Gender and Relationship Quality in Urban Families,” Social Forces, Vol. 86, No. 3 (March 2008), pp. 1311–1337.

3  Sarah O. Meadows, “Family Structure and Fathers’ Well-Being: Trajectories of Mental Health and Self-Rated Health,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 50, No. 2 (June 2009), pp. 115–131.

4  Cynthia Osborn, Wendy Manning, and Pamela Smock, “Married and Cohabiting Parents’ Relationship Stability: A Focus on Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 69, No. 5 (December 2007), pp. 1345–1366.

5  Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Jacqueline D. Shannon, Natasha J. Cabrera, and Michael E. Lamb, “Fathers and Mothers at Play with Their 2- and 3-Year-Olds: Contributions to Language and Cognitive Development,” Child Development, Vol. 75, No. 6 (November/December 2004), pp. 1806–1820.

6  Ann Martin, Rebecca M. Ryan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, “The Joint Influence of Mother and Father Parenting on Child Cognitive Outcomes at Age 5,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 22, Issue 4 (4th Quarter 2007), pp. 423–439.

7  Anne Martin, Rebecca M. Ryan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, “When Fathers’ Supportiveness Matters Most: Maternal and Paternal Parenting and Children’s School Readiness,” Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 2 (April 2010), pp. 145–155.

8  Shira Offer, “Family Time Activities and Adolescents’ Emotional Well-Being,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 75, No. 1 (February 2013), pp. 26–41.

9  Holly Heard, “Fathers, Mothers, and Family Structure: Family Trajectories, Parent Gender, and Adolescent Schooling,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 69, No. 2 (May 2007), pp. 435–449.

10  Wolfinger and Wilcox, “Happily Ever After? Religion, Marital Status, Gender and Relationship Quality in Urban Families.”

11  Marcia J. Carlson, Natasha V. Pilkauskas, Sara S. McLanahan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, “Couples as Partners and Parents Over Children’s Early 
Years,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 73, No. 2 (April 2011), pp. 317–334.