For fatherhood in America, these are the best of times and the worst of times. So says a new Pew Research Center report on fathering trends.
The report, released in June, found that today’s fathers are active in their children’s daily lives to a degree not seen in nearly half a century. Live-in dads now regularly eat meals with their children, play with them, read to them, help them with their homework and ask them about their day. They also log more than twice as many hours on kid duty than did their own dads: In 1965, the average married father spent only 2.6 hours a week caring for his children; by 2000, that average had risen to 6.5 hours.
That’s fewer hours than mothers spend caring for children, but even that higher average number of fathering hours probably underestimates the involvement of today’s dads, especially those who live with their children. According to the 2011 edition of Father Facts, a reference manual on fatherhood-related research published by the non-profit, non-partisan National Fatherhood Initiative, significantly more fathers walked their children to school and attended class events and parent-teacher conferences in 2009 than in 1999. In other words, today’s active dads are even more active than they were a decade ago, and the number of hours live-in fathers devote to their children keeps rising.
But that’s where the good news ends. The Pew report found that alongside this rising level of involvement among live-in fathers is a rise in absent fathers — men who live apart from their children and often have little or no role in their children’s daily lives.
In 1960, just more than one in 10 children lived apart from their fathers. Today, more than one in four do. The statistics are starker when parsed by race: Nearly half of African-American fathers and more than a third of Hispanic fathers live separated from their children. An education gap also exists: Some 40 percent of dads who dropped out of high school live apart from their children, while only 7 percent of college graduates do.
The short-term effect of this separation is predictable: less face time between dads and their kids, whether at home, in the car or over meals. Only three in 10 absent fathers regularly talk with their children about their day, as compared with nine in 10 live-in dads. Same goes for homework help: One in 10 absent dads help out several times a week or more, while nearly two-thirds of live-in dads do.
Live-apart fathers often try to make up online or by phone for what they lack in person, but even in the electronic realm, many remain absent. Pew researchers found that while four in 10 live-apart fathers say they reach out to their children by phone or e-mail several times a week, nearly a third do so less than once a month. And while one-fifth of live-apart fathers visit their children several times weekly, more than a quarter have not seen their children in at least a year.
The consequences for children are profound. As statistics in the 2011 Father Facts report make clear, children who live apart from their biological fathers are more likely to suffer abuse, run afoul of the law, abuse drugs or alcohol, struggle with emotional and behavioral problems, live in poverty and engage in early sexual activity. Children raised by their married fathers and mothers, by contrast, fare better on nearly every sociological measure available, from their rates of graduation to their incidence of out-of-wedlock childbearing and divorce.
Many children who grow up without live-in dads manage to succeed, of course. And some live-apart fathers make heroic efforts to stay involved in the lives of children from whom they are separated against their will, sometimes by mothers who undervalue a father’s importance. But as University of Virginia sociologist and fatherhood expert W. Bradford Wilcox put it when I asked him about the issue this week, marriage and fatherhood are, for most men, “a package deal.”
“Sure, some men can be excellent fathers without living with their children,” Wilcox explained. “But children are most likely to be engaged with dad, and to benefit from his distinctive parenting style, when they are exposed to him on a day-in-day-out basis.”
Politically correct squeamishness has convinced us to ignore this common-sense connection between marriage and effective fatherhood for too long. The Pew report, and decades of earlier research showing how father absence hurts children, suggest it is time to start telling young men the truth: Being the best father you can be means more than stepping up to the plate with monthly checks and weekend visits. It means stepping up to the altar and giving your child the ultimate fatherly gift: your daily presence in his home and his life.