Dads have their day

Research shows the importance of fathers being involved in bringing up their children, but practice continues to focus on the role of the mother, writes social work professor Paul Johnson.

Over the past 30 years, social work research has increasingly recognised fathers as important and beneficial contributors to children’s lives. Instead of being viewed simply in economic terms, the influence that fathers have on children’s well-being has begun to be viewed in social, emotional and cognitive terms.

Recent studies suggest that fathers play an integral role in children’s lives, and have a positive influence on their behaviour and attainment. The high divorce rate and the increasing number of children with absent fathers intensify the need to explore the effect that fathers have on child outcomes and well-being.

However, studies have also shown that social work practitioners often fail to recognise fathers’ contributions, and neglect to engage them in children’s intervention plans. Women continue to be the primary care-givers in US society, and are often held solely responsible and accountable for children’s outcomes. Even when mothers are the alleged perpetrators in abuse cases, they are typically still the focus of interventions by child protective services. Therefore, it is unsurprising that social workers tend to focus on interventions with mothers in all areas of practice.

This disregard for fathers may be a harmful omission. By failing to engage fathers, social workers are reducing the resources available to children as well as disregarding children’s needs. Even when fathers have been considered, the focus has been on fathers who abuse rather than those who are positively involved in family life.

Some researchers are suggesting that it is not the quantity of time spent with fathers that is beneficial to children, but the quality of the relationship. This new outlook on the father-child relationship has contributed to a changing perspective on visitation. Instead of being viewed only as “all good or all bad”, the value of a father’s involvement is now viewed as dependent upon interpersonal factors.

Effective parenting requires not simply the parent’s presence – or even specific behaviours – but an affectionate bond between the father and child and it is the strength of this emotional tie that contributes to the child’s well-being.

While the importance of father-child relationships has become an important area of study, considerably more research needs to be done, especially on the effects of involvement from fathers who do not have custody of their children. If studies can show that fathers are beneficial to children and contribute positively to outcomes social work practitioners may be encouraged to focus on fathers and engage them in intervention.

Paul Johnson is an assistant professor in the school of social work, University of Southern Maine.


  • 24 million children (34 per cent) do not live with their biological father.
  • Nearly 20 million children (27 per cent) live in one-parent homes.
  • About 40 per cent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their fathers at all during the last year; 26 per cent of absent fathers live in a dfiferent state than their children; and 50 per cent of children with absent fathers have never set foot in his home.
  • In 1999, 6.3 per cent of married parents with children were living in poverty, compared with 31.8 per cent of one parent families with children.

Source: US Census Bureau, Current Popualtion Survey.

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