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  • Marriage is the institution that maximizes the odds that fathers live with their own children on a stable basis. Tweet This
  • Federal programs and public policies designed to promote healthy fatherhood should not lose sight of the importance of also strengthening marriage in America. Tweet This
Category: Marriage, Fathers

Editor's Note: The following essay is an abbreviated version of written testimony that IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox submitted to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee for the Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Hearing, "Celebrating Fathers and Families: Federal Support for Responsible Fatherhood," which was held on June 11, 2019. 

Given the changing character and contours of American family life,1 one might think that we have moved into a new era where fathers are no longer important. However, while children can and do thrive without their fathers, the data is unequivocal: children are much more likely to thrive when their father is actively engaged in their life.

The benefits of fathers’ engagement with their children are numerous, from improved mental health and academic achievement to reduced levels of crime and teen pregnancy. Studies indicate that children are more likely to excel in school and to avoid delinquency when they are raised with an involved and nurturing father.2 Children who report a high-quality relationship with their father are less likely to experience depression than their counterparts who don’t enjoy such a relationship with their father.3 The significant effect of a father’s presence on boys’ propensity to commit crime has also been well-documented,4 while other research shows that girls without involved fathers are much more likely to become pregnant compared to their peers with engaged dads.5

Where, exactly, are children most likely to encounter the kind of engaged fathering that leads to better outcomes? When a dad lives in the home, maintaining a day-in-day-out presence in their lives. This most often happens when their father is married to their mother. Children with divorced or unmarried parents see their fathers markedly less often than children whose parents are married to one another.6 In fact, only about one-third of non-residential fathers see their kids once a week and, sadly, about 30% of such dads rarely see their children.7 Kids without married parents also report less affectionate relationships with their fathers, causing them to miss out on a wide variety of benefits.8

Additional research has found that having two parents in the home actually has a positive effect on the behavior and parenting practices of both parents, leading to lower levels of child abuse, more self-control in parent-toddler relationships, and better connections between parents and teens as the children move into adolescence.9 That’s because two parents can relieve one another when they exhausted or angry, and also monitor the quality of one another’s parenting.

Finally, it should be emphasized that cohabitation does not provide the same benefits or level of family stability that marriage does. In the United States, children born to cohabiting parents who never marry are more than twice as likely to see their parents break up, compared to those born to married parents.10 Additional studies have found that children in a cohabiting family are more likely to experience psychological problems—including nervousness, depression, and tension—compared to their counterparts in a married home.11

As Father’s Day approaches, then, we cannot lose sight of three fundamental lessons from the social sciences: 

  1. Children benefit from the affection, attention, guidance, and material support of their fathers;
  2. They are most likely to get these four goods when their fathers live with them; and,
  3. Marriage is the institution that maximizes the odds that fathers live with their own children on a stable basis.

Given all this, federal programs and public policies designed to promote healthy fatherhood should not lose sight of the importance of also strengthening marriage in America. That’s because no other institution is as successful as marriage in connecting fathers to their children.

W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

1. W. Wang, et al., “Breadwinner Moms,” Pew Research Center, May 29, 2013. 

2. H.S. Goldstine, “Fathers’ absence and cognitive development of 12–17 year-olds,” Psychological Reports 51, no. 3 (1982): 843–848; C. Nord, & J. West, “Fathers’ and mothers’ involvement in their children’s schools by family type and resident status,” National Center for Education Statistics, May 2001; W.J. Yeung, G.J. Duncan, & M.S. Hill, “Putting fathers back in the picture: Parental activities and children’s adult outcomes,” in H. E. Peters, G. W. Peterson, S. K. Steinmetz, & R. D. Day (Eds.), Fatherhood: Research, Interventions and Policies (New York, NY: Hayworth Press, 2000): (pp. 97– 113). K. M. Harris, & J.K. Marmer, “Poverty, paternal involvement, and adolescent well-being,” Journal of Family Issues 17, no. 5 (1996): 614– 640; J.H. Pleck, “Paternal involvement: levels, sources, and consequences,” in M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The Role of Fathers in Child Development (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1997, 3rd edition): pp. 66-103.

3. W. B. Wilcox, “The Distinct, Positive Impact of a Good Dad,” The Atlantic, June 14, 2013. 

4. C. Harper and S. McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14, no.3 (2004): 369-397.

5. Ellis et al., “Does Father Absence Place Daughters at Special Risk for Early Sexual Activity and Teenage Pregnancy?” Child Development 74, no. 3 (May/June 2003): pgs. 801-821; Wilcox, The Atlantic, 2013.

6. J. Seltzer and S. M. Bianchi, “Children’s Contact with Absent Parents,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 50, no. 3 (August 1988): 663–77.

7. P. Amato, C. Meyers, R. Emery, “Changes in Non-Resident Father-Child Contact From 1976-2002,” Family Relations 58, no. 1 (February 2009): 41-53.

8. P. Amato and A. Booth, A Generation at Risk (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); W. S. Aquilino, “Impact of Childhood Family Disruption on Young Adults’ Relationships with Parents,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 56, no. 2 (May 1994): 295–313; T. M. Cooney, “Young Adults’ Relations with Parents: The Influence of Recent Parental Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 56, no. 1 (February 1994): 45–56; A. S. Rossi and P.H. Rossi, Of Human Bonding: Parent-Child Relations Across the Life Course (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1990).

9. W.B. Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters, Third Edition: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences (New York: Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project, 2011); M.E. Lamb, “Infant-father Attachments and Their Impact on Child Development,” in C. S. Tamis-LeMonda & N. Cabrera (Eds.), Handbook of Father Involvement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (UK: Routledge, 2004): pp. 93–118. N.J. Mahwah, et al., “Fathers and Family Context: Effects of Marital Quality on Child Adjustment,” in M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The Role of Fathers in Child Development, Third Edition (New York:  John Wiley & Sons, 2010): pp. 49–65, 318–325; M.E. Lamb, “Fathers and Child Development: An introductory overview and guide,” in M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The Role of Fathers in Child Development, Third Edition (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2010): pp. 1–18, 309–313.

10. Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters, 2011.

11. G. Acs and S. Nelson, “The Kids Are Alright? Children’s Well-Being and the Rise in Cohabitation,” B-48, New Federalism: National Survey of America’s Families Series (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2002).