Changing role of ­fathers in their ­children’s lives

With the government  keen to stress the part played by fathers in families, James Blewett looks at a review of  700 studies into what is expected of them


Title: Understanding Fatherhood: A review of recent research
Authors: Charlie Lewis and Michael E Lamb
Institutions: Charlie Lewis is professor of family and developmental psychology at Lancaster University and Michael E Lamb is professor of psychology in social sciences at the University of Cambridge

Available: The research was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2007


In recent years an increasing theme in government child welfare policy has been the promotion of the involvement of fathers in services and more broadly family life as an important component of its strategy for improving outcomes for all children and young people.

Guidance and resources have been published and made available in relation for example to engaging young fathers in the government’s teenage pregnancy strategy and promoting more widely the participation of fathers in meeting their children’s health and education needs. In January 2008 the Fatherhood Institute was launched and this receives significant funding and support from the government. Beverly Hughes, the children’s minister, for example will be speaking at their national conference “Fatherhood Matters” in May.

This research review however started with the premise that, despite this political climate, society’s attitude towards fathering is complex, dynamic and in some senses ambivalent. The authors recognised there a huge variation in the role that fathers play and therefore the review sought to consider

Parenting in “ordinary families”

The factors associated with the diversity of paternal involvement


As a research review this report aimed to rigorously examine the research that has been carried out into fatherhood. Recognising that research activity is increasing in this area the authors looked at a very wide range of studies carried out in both the UK and internationally, reviewing over 700 research papers.

A positive feature of this overview is the way in which they look at the strengths and limitations of the ways in which the studies were carried out and also the context in which they took place. This is particularly important when looking at international studies where there may be many commonalities with the UK experience but also important social, cultural and political differences.

Before setting out the findings of individual studies Lewis and Lamb recognised that research in this area is, perhaps more than in most areas, shaped by the philosophical and political values of the respective authors. They began their review therefore by looking at different definitions and theoretical constructions of fatherhood and, in particular, differentiated between biological and social constructed roles of fathers. They recognised also that measuring the whole concept of involvement in family life was fraught with methodological difficulties in that it could take place across many dimensions including for example activity in relation to economic roles, day-to-day child care and emotional commitment.

They identified two developments in the field of social research that helped make sense of this complexity. Firstly in both the US and UK there has been the development of national data sets of large numbers of children and their families. For example in the UK the Millennium Cohort Study is looked at nearly 20,000 babies born in 2000 and their families. This provides rich quantitative data about the changing nature of family life. Secondly, qualitative research is becoming increasingly sophisticated and therefore recognised as valid in researching complex issues such as family dynamics.


The review argues that there have been important sociological changes in the UK over the past 30 years. The nature of these changes are highly complex and some degree contested by different studies, with Lewis and Lamb avoiding simplistic or crass headlines.

Nevertheless they point to an overall trend of men wanting to play an increasing role in their children’s lives. In particular where both parents are resident the changing nature of employment is having a profound impact on family life.

However this effect is contradictory and in some respects problematic. Many studies showed that women’s increasing role in the workplace has resulted in some men doing more in the home. However men’s hours of work have also increased and they therefore reported that in such cases family life could become more stressful.

They also looked at the nature of fathering itself and concluded that it is a complex set of inter-related relational and economic roles. Some of these are hidden and not always recognised by professionals. They reported for example among groups of fathers who were often assumed to play a minimal role in their children’s lives such as fathers in prison or teenage fathers these assumptions were often misplaced.

Indeed they found a strong message across the studies that men remained involved with their children even when non-resident. The exception to this was in cases of violence by men against the mothers of the children. Across the studies Lewis and Lamb found a tendency for there to be polarised stereotypes of fathers between (in a phrase taken from the American literature) “super dads and deadbeat dads”.

There can also be a tendency by practitioners to look to fathers to compensate for deficits in parenting by mothers. However Lewis and Lamb found a close correlation between the role of mothers and the engagement with fathers. When fathers were non-resident it was usually mothers who mediated the relationships between the fathers and their children. Positive relations with fathers were normally closely paralleled by the relationship with the mother.

Finally in relation to services for families the review reported that many are very gendered and make assumptions about the roles of fathers. Looking at Sure Start projects and other early years provision, 40% of the fathers of the children (albeit often briefly) had contact with the service while only between 1 and 2% staff were male. This was not in itself problematic if the services were genuinely welcoming and accessible to men.


More information about the Fatherhood Institute 

A research study into the involvement of fathers in the Sure Start project

Mary Ryan published a useful and accessible research overview for the Department of Health called Working with Fathers.

James Blewett is research director at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London



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