Recent studies by demographers and sociologists at major universities across the countries are documenting a very positive trend: Non-resident dads are increasing their share of child custody, spending more time with their kids, and paying their child support more regularly. Experts including sociologists, family therapists, child advocates and the Fathers' Rights movement have long pointed out that kids benefit when dads take an active role, and it appears that fathers are feeling more empowered.
"People don't realize how much things have changed," said Penn State sociologist and demographer Paul Amato. Just like married fathers in the 1970s, who broke through generations of social pressure to become more actively involved with their children, today's non-resident dads tend to spend more time face-to-face with their kids.
Amato's research, which was published in February in the journal Demography, rated non-resident fathers' involvement in their children's lives. 38 percent were highly involved, and 8 percent exhibited a clear pattern of increasing contact. 32 percent were rarely involved with their kids, and 23 percent showed declining contact.
Another recent study, published in the journal Family Relations, took a look at changes in the overall levels of contact between non-resident fathers and their children over the past 30 years. In 1976, the study showed, 18 percent of non-resident dads saw their kids at least weekly. That number had grown to 31 percent by 2002.
Many Factors Make It Harder for Fathers to Stay Involved
Even with the positive trends, half of all American children will end up living apart from their dads for at least part of their childhoods. Factors such as geographic distance, child custody laws, customs such as schools insisting upon a "primary parent" for their files, and challenges with co-parenting can have a big impact on how involved fathers can be.
The biggest factor affecting a fathers' rights could be the ability of estranged couples to work together as parents. According to Philip Cowan, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, the "best predictor of whether a father is going to be involved with his kids is his relationship with the mom."
The Quality of the Father-Child Relationship Makes a Difference
Research has long shown that fathers' active involvement with their kids has many positive effects on children's well-being. More recently, a five-year study of non-resident fathers by Pennsylvania State University sociologist and demographer Valarie King found that the quality of that relationship could be even more important.
"The point isn't what fathers do; it's whether the kid thinks or believes the father cares about them," commented Cowan.
Brian Evans of Raytown, Missouri, may be a case in point. He and his daughter send text messages daily. "Recently we created this little code where we may not have time to say much to each other -- it's dot, dot, dot, exclamation point," he says. "Which means 'I love you and don't you ever forget it.'"
Happy Father's Day, everyone!
"Dads who don't live with their kids find ways to be involved" (USA TODAY, June 17, 2010)