Q & A with a fatherhood expert

Dr. Ronald B. Mincy is a national authority on fatherhood and the author of the book "Failing our Fathers."

Dr. Ronald B. Mincy is a national authority on fatherhood and the author of the book "Failing our Fathers."

Dr. Ronald B. Mincy shares his expertise on the importance of fathers in the early development of their kids, and a social landscape that sometimes fails to recognize their crucial role.

He directs the Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being, is an investigator of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study and a faculty member of the Columbia Population Research Center.

He’s also an advisory board member for Transition to Fatherhood at Cornell University, the National Fatherhood Leaders Group and author of “Failing our Fathers”.

Do children benefit from having a father or father figure in their lives?

Yes they do. I know this from data about the opposite.

On a range of outcomes, like the likelihood of graduating from college, scoring well in school and cognitive development overall, we see a lack of father presence as a risk factor.

In what ways do fathers impact early child development?

It appears that fathers of young children, if they’re focused on talking and reading with their kids, tend to improve their kids’ behavior. We find they’re less likely to express aggressive attitudes, for instance.

Also, moms do a lot of the caregiving, whereas father interactions center on play, and play is essential in early learning.

Dad’s physical play tends to help them exercise executive function: to be in control and modify their behavior when needed. Rough and tumble play is an opportunity to learn boundaries, for instance.

With fathers we see that they tend to talk to their children more like they would with adults rather than using baby talk. As a result, those children tend to have a larger lexicon. When children have words, they can ask for what they want and they’re better communicators, which directly mitigates frustration when the child wants or needs something, for instance.  

If fathers are engaging with their children, the positive effects on lexicon and academia are increased. They become faster learners in school and are more ready to learn once they start kindergarten.

Is it true that there’s a father absence crisis? What is the cause?

Yes. That is increasingly baked into the cake of our social makeup.

Forty percent of US parents are unmarried and increasingly, children aren’t being parented by their biological dads from birth to adulthood. The transition to new men means those children probably won’t have the same quality of relationship as they could have had with their biological dad.

More couples are choosing cohabitation. Single mothers result more from that than divorce and it’s becoming more common for children to have a stepfather between the ages of 5 and 9. That instability is generally not good for children’s development.

The main issue is we are unintentional in our childbearing. Couples don’t have game plans and as a result, children are suffering by losing out on present parents.

Marriage isn’t a panacea, but there’s intentionality there.

Research shows children who grow to married parents tend to have both biological parents under one roof for longer.

Choosing cohabitation is a main driver of the absent father crisis because most of those couples break up.

How many kids grow up fatherless?

I know there are 9 million non-resident fathers. Because of serial monogamy, fathers may have a resident child – a child they live with, and a nonresident child. These patterns are a whole new ballgame for researchers and the numbers are increasing.

How can we help fathers have the most impact on their child?

From the policy and program point of view, fathers must be encouraged to read to their child, particularly when less educated people are the audience, since they tend to think that because kids don’t understand the words yet, they won’t benefit.

Programs are not emphasizing enough on making connections with kids even before they become toddlers and that’s the most powerful time: 0 to 3.

Programs around father preservation may focus on normalizing their environment and encouraging them to play and interact their children, but they don’t focus on reading.

Reading creates an emotional attachment. While reading, you’re cradling the child. The child then makes the connection to a positive feeling and connects that feeling to an enjoyment of reading. And early reading opens to door to become a better learner.

What are some myths about the role of fathers?

One myth is that the father’s contribution to the child’s learning isn’t so important and that couldn't be further from the truth.

The dialogue between fathers and kids might be more about play and less about care, but there’s still nurturing there.

Rarely are there studies that study father-child interactions so we don’t know as much as we could. There’s a lack of interest on the part of early child development researchers because fathers are not regarded as the primary caregiver.

Do you think fathers don’t feel needed since family roles have shifted?

It depends on where you are in the education distribution.

We see that educated fathers are more engaged with their children, compared with fathers of the previous generation. Because we’ve moved to a place where we’re encouraging women to work more, we’re also on a trajectory to ask men to assume more roles in childcare.

Where we’re having trouble is with low-income families, where both parents are required to work and work a lot.

On the lower-income side, the expectation of fathers is to be responsible breadwinners.

Low-income parents may work different shifts so children are alone or with other care providers, but it’s not the parent interacting with the child to stimulate cognitive development. Low-income fathers play a lesser role in their child’s life because they have to fulfill the provider role.

What are fathers up against in spending time with their children?

Fatherhood isn’t a national priority. We haven’t heard about the importance of it from any political groups, for instance. There are always bigger issues that eclipse the topic.

But as far as the law is concerned, a lot of states are moving toward joint custody for parents. It’s the cost of litigation though. If the father wants to spend more time with his child, he has to fight for it at a cost.

Many unmarried fathers have to pay child support, but have no legal rights to visit their kids and can’t afford to litigate. Our recent efforts to grant paternal visitation to fathers paying child support were rejected and unmarried fathers lose out. In those cases, it’s up to the mother to determine visitation.

Nonmarital births are becoming main stream across age, income and race lines. I think if more men were aware of this, they would think more about family planning or morality.

But divorced fathers don’t have that issue and are more often granted automatic joint custody.

What can be done to keep fatherhood intact. How can we support fathers more?

Make men and women more aware about how parent stability affects kids.

Research shows when the father is engaged in the birthing process, there’s less infant mortality and less cortisol production in mom that can affect the baby in utero.

Even things like talking and singing to the baby in utero shows gains in early development – dad can do that. Dads can do anything from getting the home prepared, to getting the oranges like I did – my wife craved them during her pregnancies.

Studies also show that parents are co-conspirators in their child’s outcomes. When one parent adopts a healthier habit, the other tends to copy.

And those investments affect a child for a lifetime.

If men can understand how crucial their roles are, they’ll have healthier births. They need to hear: “You’re not a passive agent. You have a role.”

How can fathers be the best at their role?

Encourage fathers to read to their kids. They may able to read to their kids in different ways than mom. Don’t care for reading? Tell stories. Kids will still benefit. Engage with them.

Also, people need to be intentional in their choice to have kids.

Be committed first. Even if mom and dad are unmarried, when mom and dad get along, kids have better lifelong outcomes.

Engagement of nonresident fathers is even more important since children with nonresident fathers are more at risk for achievement gaps at school and beyond.

Research shows a father’s involvement in the first three years is more important than what happens after the child is 9 since their ability to become self learners is actualized before 3.

Investments in those years have endless benefits and parents need to know the child needs both of you to maximize their potential.

For more resources on fatherhood, visit:

The National Center for Fathering


The Healthy Fathering Collaborative

Fathers & Families Coalition of America

National Fatherhood Initiative