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  • A father’s most important contribution to his children is not his paycheck; it's forming supportive and loving relationships. Tweet This
  • We need a concerted effort to communicate to programs that when we say parents, we mean both mothers and fathers and that fathers are an integral part of families. Tweet This

A young father of a 9-month old baby who agreed to participate in our observational study of fathers, mothers, and babies was visibly uncomfortable when he was asked to play with his son.1 He told us that since the time the baby was born, he had spent very little time with him because he worked all the time.

Another father participating in our study, who became exasperated after 30 minutes of conversation during the survey interview, asked: “So, when are you going to ask me how many jobs I have so I can support my family?” Like the young man mentioned above, this father also worked full time every day, with little reserve left to spend with his children. 

The prevailing public narrative about low-income fathers makes little room for the humanization of the father experience and is both critical of their ability to economically support their children and of those who work such long hours that they are left with little time or energy for their families. This public narrative has been further fueled by popularized messages about “deadbeat” dads and high rates of incarceration among fathers. National statistics of non-involvement do not reveal fathers’ individual stories and personal struggles, and their efforts to do their best for their children financially and emotionally. This proves confusing, not only for fathers but also for the public as the norms, demands, and feasibility of the father as the family’s main breadwinner has dramatically shifted over the prior half-century.

Beyond Money: Father-child Relationships Are Important

Decades of research demonstrates that the quality of the relationship a parent shares with a child is fundamental to the well-being of both parent and child.2 Fathers who are engaged in the daily care of their children become attuned to their children’s needs and are able to respond sensitively and engage in “serve and return” interactions that lead to healthy and nurturing relationships. Such a relationship facilitates a secure attachment and provides the growing infant with a sense of security and love that is sustained across the lifespan.  

Studies also show that fathers who spend time with their children engaged in play can make a big difference in children’s vocabulary development and self-regulatory behaviors. Unstructured rough-and-tumble play interactions typical of fathers promote language skills and children’s emotional regulation.3 Dads can live up to the image of “playmates” for their children with the added bonus that this type of play helps children develop the skills they need for school.

Fathers stimulate language development when they follow the lead of their child and clarify labels as the child reaches for unfamiliar objects and ask “Wh” questions (What’s that? Where did it go?).4 In fact, a recent intervention with teen incarcerated dads has shown that fathers who are taught to establish positive relationships with their children (i.e., follow child’s lead and acknowledge the child’s gestures as a way to communicate) have children who are more secure and have better outcomes than the control group.5

In middle childhood, fathers often challenge their sons and daughters to try new things and tend to encourage autonomy more so than mothers. Such behaviors build confidence and promote independence, both of which help children develop problem-solving skills that facilitate success in academic and social pursuits.   

In adolescence, fathers continue to serve as an important source for advice and conversation, although the research on this population is sparse. Some fathers may withdraw from their teenagers, either to continue to encourage independence in their children or for other reasons such as stress or feelings of being unneeded. For example, adolescent girls tend to rely on their mothers more for emotional support during this time, though their relationship with their fathers continues to build their self-esteem and forms a basis for how to relate to members of the opposite sex.6

Low-Wage Labor Market Interference 

The reality is that many low-income men in the U.S. work in jobs that pay at or near the minimum wage. This not only affects their marriage prospects (or marital relationships), but after working two to three jobs, this also reduces the total earnings that fathers make. Working long and unpredictable hours (conventional characteristics of contemporary low-wage work) and on weekends takes low-income fathers out of the home for the majority of the day, leaving them little time for their families and children. 

The demands of work schedules are especially challenging for parents with young children, who are not yet in full-day school and require more coordination of nonparental care as well as parental attention. For many participants in our study, balancing work and family was a consistent source of stress. As one father told us:7

…once I get out of work I pick him up from her [grandmother’s] house … and once we get home, we cook something, and then it is already too late to go out, so I can’t take him out [to the park]; it is 7 or 8:30 pm.

For many parents, working long hours and multiple jobs is incompatible with their belief that being a “good parent” means spending time with your child, or as one parent told us, “getting to know my kid.” Working long hours presents a potential risk for becoming estranged from family, which can decrease emotional support and have further unfavorable feedback effects on fathers’ financial contribution to the family. 

We have a double standard in this country: If a man is middle class, we value his nurturing and caregiving role in the family. If he is poor, we mostly value his financial contribution.

How Low-Income Working Fathers Make Parenting Work

A long work day is physically exhausting and further drains energy, leaving little room to manage “crises” that typically arise every day with young children. For example, research shows that parents are more likely to increase their involvement at home in response to their children’s behavior problems.8 This involvement might take the form of being at home after school or quitting a job altogether to monitor and supervise children’s activities. This choice to stay (or work at) home to make sure your child is on the right path is not available to everyone. If a low-income father quits his job at McDonald’s to be a “stay-home” dad and raise his children, he would not only lose all of his earnings and thus economic support for his family, but society would generally view this father as lazy or irresponsible.

Yet there are stories of resilience. A man participating in our study about parenting practices put it best: 

Every day the same thing [long working hours and no time to spend with my children], except Saturdays. For example, today she woke up first and she came ‘daddy, I want waffles, I want to go to Los Gringos.’ Saturdays we automatically have breakfast together in Los Gringos. 

In another family, a father who worked three jobs on low wages would wake up his toddler late at night when he got home, so they could play for an hour or two. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have time together from one Sunday to the next. The child was tired the next day, but this was the only way the father saw to manage his responsibilities to support his child financially and to spend time with her.

How to Support Low-Income Fathers

Unfortunately, the low-wage economy, prevailing norms, and policy assumptions may be discouraging some fathers from investing time with their children and compelling other fathers to sacrifice time with their children entirely in favor of providing financial support. What can we do?

First, there needs to be a social and cultural shift away from thinking that low-income fathers cannot be good dads, or that the most important thing they can do for their children is to supply a paycheck. Instead, we need to move toward the idea that a father’s most important contribution to their children is in forming supportive and loving relationships. We have a double standard in this country: If a man is middle class, we value his nurturing and caregiving role in the family. If he is poor, we mostly value his financial contribution. This shift in how we think about fathers needs to be supported by their employers, policy, and the public to nurture opportunities for men in low-wage jobs to attend a recital, or a soccer game, without fear of losing their job.

Second, fathers who do not live with their children need support to stay engaged and connected with them. If they were married and later divorced, they are allowed visitation but usually only two weekends a month. More time requires litigation, which few earning below the median can afford. Custody and visitation are much more complicated for never-married fathers. With exceptions, despite being legally recognized as the father and required to pay child support, they have no legal right to visit their children. So, these fathers must litigate to establish their visitation rights, but few do because they are less able to afford legal counsel than divorced fathers. As a result, access to their children is entirely up to the mothers. Fathers who maintain good relationships with the mothers of their children are likely to see them more frequently than fathers who do not.9

Third, we need to provide programmatic support for fathers, too, not just mothers, to improve their parenting skills and include them in intervention programs designed for parents. Even today, Head Start programs mostly include mothers and their children. There needs to be a concerted effort to communicate to programs that when we say parents, we mean both mothers and fathers and that fathers are an integral part of families.

Natasha Cabrera is a Professor in the Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on adaptive and maladaptive factors related to mothering and fathering, cultural variation in ethnic minority families, and the mechanisms linking early experiences to children’s school readiness. Lisa Gennetian is a research professor at New York University. Her research focuses on understanding what shapes parent economic behavior and how to reduce child poverty.


1. Cabrera, N. & Reich, S. (2017, April). “BabyBooks2: A randomized control trial (RCT) to test the effects of a book intervention for low-income mothers and fathers.” In N. Cabrera (Chair), International perspectives on parenting interventions for at-risk families.  Symposium conducted at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Austin, TX.

2. Cabrera, N., Volling, B., & Barr, R., “Fathers are parents, too! Widening the lens on parenting for children’s development,” Child Development Perspectives, v. 12, 3 (September 2018): 1-6. 

3. Cabrera, N., Karberg, E., Malin, J., & Aldoney, D., “The magic of play: Low-income mothers’ and fathers’ playfulness and children’s emotion regulation and vocabulary skills, ” Journal of Infant Mental Health (2017): 14-29.

4. Malin, J.L., Cabrera, N. J, & Rowe, M., “Low-income minority mothers’ and fathers’ reading and children’s interest: Longitudinal contributions to children’s receptive vocabulary skills,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (2014): 34-55.

5. Rachel Barr, Natalie Brito, Jaclyn Zocca, Samantha Reina, Jennifer Rodriguez, and Carole Shauffer, “The Baby Elmo Program: Improving teen father–child interactions within juvenile justice facilities,” Child and Youth Services Review (2011): 1555-1562

6. Raquel Nogueira Avelar e Silva, Daphne van de Bongardt, Petra van de Looij-Jansen, Anne Wijtzes, Hein Raat, “Mother– and Father–Adolescent Relationships and Early Sexual Intercourse,” Pediatrics 138, issue 6 (December 2018) 

7. Aldoney, D., & Cabrera, N., “Raising American Citizens: Socialization Goals of Low-Income Immigrant Latino Mothers and Fathers of Young Children.” Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25 (2016): 3607-3618.

8. Nermeen E. El Nokali, Heather J. Bachman, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, “Parent Involvement and Children's Academic and Social Development in Elementary School,” Child Development (2010): 908-1005

9. Fagan, J. and Palkovitz, R., “Coparenting and Relationship Quality Effects on Father Engagement: Variations by Residence, Romance.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 73 (2011): 637-653.