Research Abstract: Ethnic Differences in Father Involvement in Two-Parent Families: Culture, Context, or Economy?

In Research by Engagement


tree11The following is an abstract of Race/Ethnic Differences in Father Involvement in Two-Parent Families: Culture, Context, or Economy? by Sandra L Hofferth (University of Maryland).
A father’s emotional investment, attachment, and provision of resources are associated with children’s cognitive development and social competence. Differential achievement in child development by various racial/ethnic groups may result from differential father involvement.

Theoretical Perspectives

1) Key Parenting Practices
Parents are characterised as using one of four disciplinary styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved. The authoritarian style, a combination of parental warmth and control, is believed to create the best environment for child development.

2) Cultural Differences in Parenting
As parenting occurs within a cultural context, socialisation practices in race/ethnic minority families may differ from those of White families. Minority families may teach skills to assist their children in navigating ethnic and racial barriers. Black parents may exhibit more control and less warmth than White parents, perhaps as a response to a more dangerous and hostile environment.

Differences in gender-role attitudes among Black, White and Hispanic parents may also explain differences in fathering behaviours. Fathers who endorse gender equity are likely to be more involved with their children.

3) Economic Differences Among Race/Ethnic Groups
Differences in parenting among race/ethnic groups may result from economic differences such as lower labour earnings, lesser employment and fewer hours of work. Fathers who contribute more financially may feel that providing financially is their primary responsibility and do not contribute in other ways. Division of labour theory suggests that earning more is associated with doing less housework, including caregiving.

4) Differences in Neighbourhood Context
It is anticipated that the extent of control that fathers exert will be a function of the overall quality of the neighbourhood and its racial/ethnic composition. Fathers may parent their children differently in an ethnically homogenous community than one in which they are a minority. An ethnically homogenous community may support ethnic traditions that promote familial involvement by fathers and less control.

Data and Method

This article examines factors associated with differential involvement of fathers among Black, White, and Hispanic children in two-parent families, using data from the 1997 Child Development Supplement (CDS) to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The sample consists of 1,229 children living with two-parents.


1) Race/Ethnicity
Race/ethnicity is categorised as non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic and “other”. As a result of the selection of children living with two parents, the distribution within the sample was 76% White, 11% Hispanic, 8% Black and 5% were of other races/ethnicities.

2) Parental Involvement and Parenting
The four measures for parental involvement were time children spend engaged with their fathers; responsibility; parental warmth; and parental control.

3) Key Variables
The five key variables that were measured were economic characteristics; neighbourhood; gender-role attitudes; fathering attitudes and skills; and intergenerational learning.

4) Control Variables
Variables controlled in the analysis include the age and gender of the child, number of children, father’s age, and whether the father is a biological or non-biological father to the child.


1) Mean Differences in Father Involvement
In two-parent families, children average 14.93 hours per week engaged with their fathers. Black children’s fathers are significantly less engaged than White children’s fathers (12.76 hours compared to 15.35 hours). There is no significant difference between Hispanic and White children’s fathers’ engagement.

The analysis shows that Black fathers demonstrated greater control and less warmth. On responsibility for caring, both Black and Hispanic children’s fathers rank higher than White children’s. The differences could also be explained by differences in economic situations and living arrangements. The analysis also surfaced unexpected differences in attitudes, including traditional marriage attitudes among Blacks, high levels of equity among Hispanic fathers and high levels of individualism among all three minority groups.
2) Children’s Time Engaged with Fathers
With controls for children’s age and gender, father’s age, non-biological father and family size, the effect of Black race declines significantly and is no longer associated with children’s time with their father.

Black families in the study’s sample tend to have a larger number of children, thus limiting the father’s time spent on each child. Black children are also two times more likely to be living with a non-biological father than White children. And, thus, receive less attention from fathers.

Across all races/ethnicities, the more hours the father works and the more he makes, and the better the neighbourhood, the lower his time with his children.

3) Parental Warmth
Black children’s fathers report significantly fewer actions described as “warm behaviours” with their children than White children’s fathers. This is suggestive of more traditional fathering behaviour in Black than White families.

However, when controlled for family structure and other background factors, the effect of being black declines significantly. This is because the higher proportion of non-biological fathers in Black families tends to result in less warm behaviours between father and stepchildren.

4) Parental Monitoring and Control
Black fathers demonstrate significantly more control and Hispanic fathers significantly less control than White fathers. The Black-White difference reduces significantly when adjusted for family structure, as Black families in the sample tend to have more six- to eight-year-olds and have more children, resulting in an increased amount of control exerted.

5) Parental Responsibility
Both Hispanic and Black children’s fathers report themselves significantly more likely than White children’s fathers to take responsibility of their care.

Controlling for economic status significantly reduces the effect of Black origin. This is because Black families are characterised by lower fathers’ earnings and work hours, higher mothers’ earnings and being more likely to have no breadwinner. These factors are associated with Black fathers taking greater responsibility for children.


Minority fathering in two-parent families does not vary too significantly from that of majority families. Black fathers tend to be more authoritarian, with less warmth and greater control, whereas Hispanic fathers are more permissive, with less control than White fathers. Black and Hispanic fathers are as involved as majority fathers and share greater responsibility for child rearing with their partners.

The results suggest that parenting attitudes are a major factor in race differences in control and responsibility, whereas economic factors strongly affect engagement and responsibility. Differences in warmth are due to background differences, neighbourhood and family structure.

When demographic and economic factors, such as family size, structure and employment are controlled, Black-White differences in engagement are no longer statistically significant.

The study found evidence that attitudes, values and motivational factors – termed “cultural factors” – are closely tied to father’s engagement with children. Hispanic fathers report their own fathers were more involved in rearing them and that increases their involvement with their own children.

Research on involvement of non-residential fathers is an important next step in evaluating father involvement in families in the United States.


1. Hofferth, S., (2003) Race/Ethnic Differences in Father Involvement in Two-Parent Families: Culture, Context, or Economy?,Journal of Family Issues, 2003 24: 185

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First published on 30-04-2011.