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What is a Dad?

According to Wikipedia, a father is the male parent of a child. Besides the paternal bonds of a father to his children, the father may have a parental, legal, and social relationship with the child that carries with it certain rights and obligations. Yet is that it?

From what I have observed and read, fathers today come in various forms. He is no longer always the traditional married breadwinner and disciplinarian in the family. He can be single, co-habiting or married; externally employed or stay-at home; gay or straight; an adoptive or step-parent; and a more than capable caregiver to children facing physical or psychological challenges. Psychological research across families from all ethnic backgrounds suggests that fathers' affection and increased family involvement greatly encourage children's social and emotional development.

Two to three centuries ago, fathers’ roles were mainly about serving as breadwinners and the conveyers of moral values and religious education to their children. This began to change with the advent of industrialisation and urbanisation and as factories became the major source of employment, fathers became distanced from the household and their families. Growing rates of abandonment and illegitimacy led to the development of welfare programmes to assist widowed or unmarried women in supporting their children.

In more recent times, the changing economic role of women has greatly impacted the role of fathers. Between 1948 and 2001, the percentage of working age women employed or looking for work nearly doubled–from less than 33 percent to more than 60 percent. The increase in financial power made paternal financial support less necessary for some families. Along with the growing autonomy of women, related trends such as declining fertility, increasing rates of divorce and remarriage, and childbirth outside of marriage have resulted in a transition from traditional to multiple undefined roles for many fathers. Today’s fathers have started to take on roles vastly different from fathers of previous generations.

In the past, research on child development has focused more on mothers fulfilling their children’s needs. However, more recently, research has increasingly focused on fathers. This is due to the growing role modern day fathers play in caregiving. One study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) concluded that fathers tended to be more involved in caregiving when:

  • they worked fewer hours than other fathers;

  • they had positive psychological adjustment characteristics (e.g., high self esteem, lower levels of depression and hostility, and coping well with the major tasks of adulthood);

  • mothers worked more hours than other mothers;

  • mothers reported greater marital intimacy; and

  • when children were boys.

Other research on the role of fathers suggests that the influence of father love on children's development is as great as the influence of a mother's love. Fatherly love helps children develop a sense of their place in the world, which helps their social, emotional and cognitive development and functioning. Moreover, children who receive more love from their fathers are less likely to struggle with behavioural or substance abuse problems.


APA (2005). Lesbian and gay parenting. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved June 15, 2009 from

APA (2004). Briefing sheet: An overview of the psychological literature on the effects of divorce on children. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved June 15, 2009 from

APA (2003) ACT Against Violence program for incarcerated fathers. Retrieved June 19, 2009 from

APA Monitor (2007). Stay-at-home dads report high job satisfaction. Vol. 38(9), pp. 57. Retrieved June 15, 2009 from

APA Monitor (2005). Meet the renaissance dad. Vol. 36(11), pp. 62. Retrieved June 15, 2009 from

APA Monitor (2005). Stepfamily success depends on ingredients. Vol. 36(11), pp. 58. Retrieved June 15, 2009 from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief (May 2009): Changing patterns of nonmarital childbearing in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved June 19, 2009 from

Coley, R. L. (2001). (In)visible men: Emerging research on low-income, unmarried, and minority fathers. American Psychologist, 56(9), 743-753.

Fagan, J., & Palkovitz, R. (2007). Unmarried, nonresident fathers' involvement with their infants: A risk and resilience perspective. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(3), 479–489.

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (2008). America’s children in brief: Key national indicators of well-being. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved June 19, 2009 from

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2000). Factors associated with fathers' caregiving activities and sensitivity with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(2), 200-219.

U.S. Census Bureau (2009). Single-parent households showed little variation since 1994, Census Bureau reports. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from


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