Fathersâ€™ role in childrenâ€™s lives has been conceptualized and measured in different ways over the last several decades. Originally, fathers were seen primarily as playing a `bread-winningâ€™ role, providing financial stability and material resources, but the more recent concept of `father involvementâ€™ highlights the fact that fathers' contributions include emotional and psychological factors as well.
Father involvement has been conceptualized in increasingly sophisticated terms over the years. Moving beyond purely quantitative measures (e.g., hours directly engaged with children, hours being accessible to children), researchers are also investigating more substantive measures such as time spent in play, companionship, and care giving. The factors facilitating father involvement, such as level of skill, confidence, gender-role beliefs, paternal identity, social supports, institutional practices, degree of motivation for being involved with children, and a past history of positive involvement by oneâ€™s own father comprise another key area of research.
Father involvement has been examined in many different contexts, including intact families where children reside with both biological parents, as well as families affected by separation, divorce, re-marriage, conflict, domestic violence, incarceration and other risk factors. Of course, when the father is relegated to the role of a visiting parent, the father-child relationship can be marginalized or potentially severed (Finley & Schwartz, 2007; Fabricius & Braver, 2003). But research has also determined that a non-resident father can have a powerful impact on his children through consistent engagement. Researchers have also examined parenting practices (including fathering) in different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic contexts within the U.S. and in different countries and cultures around the world.
According to Lamb (2004), the question of how father involvement influences child outcomes has received more attention by researchers than many other areas of fathering research, likely because of how important, complex, and controversial the question is. As reviewed by Lamb, most earlier studies had significant limitations in that they failed to consider and control for maternal involvement and often used the same source of self-report data for information about father involvement and child outcomes (e.g., an adult child recalling degree of father involvement in childhood and reporting on outcome measures himself). However, more recent studies have made methodological progress by taking into account maternal involvement and the mother-father relationship and by using different-source data.
Reviewing only these recent studies of higher methodological quality, Lamb (2004) concluded that 10 of 14 studies have found positive correlations between father involvement and child outcomes, including lower rates of behavior problems and delinquency, positive school attitudes, fewer non-marital pregnancies as young adults, improved mental health, higher self-esteem, higher educational achievement and income levels, and better life satisfaction.
In a more recent review of the literature, Sarkadi, Kristiansson, Oberklaid, and Bremberg (2008) reviewed 24 studies of father involvement, and concluded that â€śactive and regular engagement in the child predicts a range of positive outcomesâ€¦Father engagement reduces the frequency of behavioral problems in boys and psychological problems in young women; it also enhances cognitive development while decreasing criminality and economic disadvantage in low SES familiesâ€ť (Sarkadi et al, 2008, p. 157, italics in original).
One study concluded that it is â€śthe closeness felt by the child to the fatherâ€ť that is most predictably associated with positive life outcomes for the child 25 years later (Furstenberg & Harris, 1993). And another study demonstrated that the closer the connection between father and child, the better the outcomes for the father and the child (Easterbrooks & Goldberg, 1984). Clearly, research demonstrates that father engagement influences child development in critically important ways.
Thus, while father involvement is clearly associated with positive child outcomes, many questions remain. Most importantly, research has not yet identified exactly what types of involvement, engagement, or activities between fathers and children are most important. As concluded by Sarkadi et al. (2008), â€śno specific form of engagement has been shown to yield better outcomes than anotherâ€ť (p. 153). Thus, more research is needed to demonstrate exactly how and why fathers play an important role in their childrenâ€™s lives.