Children’s Time Spent With Fathers In Intact Families

In Research by Dads for Life Resource Team

Social expectations of the father’s role in the family have changed considerably in the past three decades. Previously expected to be mainly an economic provider, the “new father” now is expected to also provide day-to-day physical and emotional care to children as an equal partner of the mother (Goldscheider & Waite, 1991)tree11

Despite these changing expectations, research based on data collected from the 1960s to 1980s shows:

  • Paternal involvement has increased (Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, & Levine, 1985; Pleck, 1985)
  • However, fathers still devote significantly less time than mothers to child rearing (Acock & Demo, 1994)
  • A “new father” role is emerging on weekends in intact families
  • Father involvement in children’s lives in new areas
  • Although some fathers are more involved with children, an increasing number of children have little or no contact with their biological fathers.
Estimating Fathers’ involvement

Although it has been hard to make generalisations and comparison of paternal involvement over time or across age groups in previous research, this study examined fathers’ involvement with their children by measuring the quantity and quality of time spent together, using children’s time diaries reported by mothers and children.

It was based on the following questions:

  • How much time do today’s children in intact families spend with their fathers?
  • Given the rise in the economic role of mothers, does the time children spend with fathers, relative to mothers, increase?
  • How do characteristics of the child and parents affect the amount and nature of father-child time?

This study collected data from a nationally representative sample of approximately 2,400 American families that had at least one child between the ages of 0 and 12.

In addition to socioeconomic characteristics of the families, detailed time diaries of the children were also collected. The analysis included 1,761 children aged 0-12 who lived with both their biological or adoptive parents in 1997.

How Fathers are Involved

As suggested by Lamb (1985) there are two distinct levels of paternal involvement:

  • Paternal EngagementTime spent interacting directly with a child across a wide range of activities
  • Paternal AccessibilityThe time a father is available to a child but not directly involved with him or her

The type of activities gathered from the analysis of the time diaries could be grouped into six primary categories:

  • Personal care activities, eg, bathing, changing, grooming, eating
  • Play and companionship activities, eg, both active and passive play, and other leisure activities
  • Achievement-related activities, eg, studying, reading, educational lessons
  • Household activities, eg, housework, shopping
  • Social activities, eg, visiting, household conversations, religious activities, participation in social events
  • Other activities, eg, time in school and day care, sleeping time
How much time do today’s children in intact families spend with their fathers?

Firstly, results based on the data collected show the same pattern as previous studies – a child in an intact family averages more hours per day directly engaged with the biological father than a child who lives with only mother or only father, or neither.

The findings showed:

  • A child’s direct engagement time with biological fathers more than doubles on weekend days as compared to weekdays, with a particularly notable increase in household and social activities.
  • 86% of the children spent some time (engaged or accessible) on weekdays
  • 93% of the children reported some paternal involvement on weekends
  • On weekdays, 75% of the children received personal care from their fathers, 67% were involved in play or companionship activities and 33% spent time in achievement-related activities.
  • On weekends, paternal involvement in each category was higher
  • Parental involvement decreases as the child’s age increases
  • Fathers are significantly more engaged with infants and toddlers in play and companionship activities than with older children
Has time children spend with fathers, relative to mothers, increased?

The findings showed:

  • On weekdays, the total engagement time of children across age groups with fathers is between 60% and 82% that of mothers
  • Although older children spend less time with their fathers, the level of involvement with fathers relative to that of mothers increases with child’s age
  • Under the categories of activities, fathers’ participation in many items is greater than that of mothers, e.g, sports, hobbies and television or video viewing
  • Fathers have a relatively greater share of interaction with children on weekends than on weekdays, especially in play and companionship activities.
How do characteristics of the child and parents affect the amount and nature of father-child time?

Previous studies seemed to suggest that the factors that predict the amount of paternal involvement are wealth, education level of the father, and work hours. However these studies were unable to determine the characteristic that had a primary influence on paternal involvement.

This study, however, examines both the characteristics of the child and the family.

  • The number of children in the family has a significant negative effect on fathers’ direct engagement time but not on their accessibility level
  • Older children spend less time with their fathers in personal care and play activities but more time in achievement-related and social activities.
  • Boys tend to spend more time with their fathers than do girls in play and companionship activities on weekdays
  • Children whose fathers have higher education are generally more involved with them
  • Fathers’ earnings have a negative and significant effect on their involvement levels with children on weekdays, reflecting the opportunity cost of fathers’ time
  • Fathers’ weekly work hours also have a negative impact on time spent with children
  • The mother’s wage does not have much impact on fathers’ involvement except when the mother contributes more half or more of the total family income
  • Although age of the child and fathers’ education remain important predictors, father’s ethnicity and mother’s earnings become significant predictors of fathers’ involvement on weekends.

Although mothers still shoulder the lion’s share of the parenting on weekdays, fathers do become more equal partners in caring for children on weekends. Longitudinal research has shown a unique and long-term benefit of paternal involvement to children’s achievement and behaviour (Snarey, 1993; Harris & Marmer, 1996; Yeung, Hill & Duncan, 2000).

Policy analysts suggest that uninvolved fatherhood is the root of a myriad of contemporary social problems.


About the Author: Adapted by Focus on the Family Singapore (FOTFS), a local charity dedicated to helping families thrive. FOTFS aims to support every family with affordable and quality family life.


First published on 05-07-2010.