Good news for kids: Fathers playing a bigger role in their lives

From changing diapers and reading books to sharing meals and carpooling, fathers' involvement in their children's lives continues to expand beyond the role of playmate, a CDC survey finds.

Patrick Semansky/AP
A father and his son ride a sled down a hill after an overnight snowfall in Baltimore. According to a government survey released on Friday, the detached dad is mostly a myth. Most American fathers say they are heavily involved in hands-on parenting, the researchers found.

There’s growing awareness that children generally benefit from a father’s involvement in their lives, and a new statistical portrait shows that fathers – even those who don’t live with their children – are taking on more than just the role of playmate.

Ninety percent of fathers living with children under age five said they bathed, diapered, dressed, or helped them use the toilet every day or several times a week in a survey report released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly a third of men not living with their children did the same.

The report offers a detailed portrait of how frequently fathers have meals with their preschool and school-age children, read to them, play with them, take them to activities, and talk with them.

Decades ago, research on fathers largely focused on their absence – measuring the negative outcomes for children whose fathers did not live at home. But that has shifted to “more thinking about the unique influences fathers might have,” and this report is “more affirmative in asking fathers about what they actually do,” says Ben Gorvine, who has researched fatherhood as a senior lecturer in psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The results come from a nationally representative sample of fathers between the ages of 15 and 44 who were surveyed between 2006 and 2010 about their activities with children in the previous four weeks. Fathers were defined broadly to include men who have stepchildren or adopted children or are living with a partner’s children.

During the time of the survey, about 23 million men in the age group examined were living with one or more children, and 7.5 million were living apart from one or more of their children – with about 5 percent fitting in both categories.

Among fathers with children under age 5:

• 72 percent who lived with children fed or ate with them daily, compared with 7.9 percent of those who did not live with the children.

• 81 percent of co-residential fathers played with their children daily – and another 18 percent played several times a week; 4 out of 10 non-co-residential fathers played at least several times a week.

• 60 percent of co-residential dads and 23 percent of non-co-residential dads read to their kids at least several days a week.

Among fathers with children between the ages of 5 and 18:

• 93 percent ate meals with them at least several days a week if they lived together, 16 percent if they did not.

• For helping with homework at least several times a week, the respective figures were 63 percent and 14 percent.

• For talking with their children about their day at least several times a week, the figures were 93 percent and 36 percent.

• And for taking children to and from various activities at least several times a week, the figures were 55 percent and 11 percent.

The level of involvement in most categories is up slightly since a similar survey in 2002.

“You could still make the case that moms take on more of the load, but the trend for the last several decades is that fathers’ involvement is increasing,” Northwestern’s Mr. Gorvine says. Encouragements such as better paternity-leave policies in workplaces seem to be contributing, he says, but many fathers, despite growing involvement, “still have a sense that this is not something they know how to do very well.”

Less than half the fathers living with their children (44 percent) rated themselves as doing “a very good job” as a father; among those not living with the children, only 21 percent rated themselves so favorably.

The report offers demographic details as well. For example:

• Among fathers ages 22 to 44, those with more education were much less likely to have had no meals with their non-co-residential children in the previous month than those with a high school diploma or less (33 percent vs. 54 percent).

• 66 percent of Hispanic fathers not living with their children under age 5 had not bathed, diapered, or dressed them in the past four weeks, significantly more than the figures for African-Americans (34 percent) or whites (39 percent).

• Older fathers were more likely than younger fathers to read to the children they lived with daily.

• Fathers cohabiting with their partners were more likely (30 percent) to have not read to their children at all in the past four weeks, compared with married fathers (12 percent).

Fathers, meanwhile, sometimes just need support to navigate their role.

“They don’t really want to just make a baby and be gone … but sometimes they don’t have a job and there is shame … or some might do well financially but don’t know how to engage with a child,” says Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering, a nonprofit in Kansas City, Mo., that offers resources and training.

An innovative Co-Parent Court in Hennepin County, Minn., has seen some success in its efforts to encourage more involvement by low-income, unmarried fathers. Instead of just being asked to pay child support, parents are offered a series of workshops and assistance developing a co-parenting plan.

A recent University of Minnesota 3-year study found that fathers who completed the program paid 17 percent more child support than a control group and reported greater satisfaction with their involvement in their children’s lives; parents’ relationships improved; and mothers reported a greater increase in the time fathers spent with the children.

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