Father Involvement What Is It and How Is It Measured

Attempts to broaden the conceptualization of fatherhood have stimulated considerable debate among researchers, theorists, policymakers, and the public at large regarding the diversity of family types and parental roles. The ecology of family life is continuing to change and thus many children will grow up in the twenty-first century without their biological fathers and/or with stepfathers. It is estimated that one-third of children will spend some time in a non-marital or stepfamily before they reach the age of eighteen. Dissolutions of stepfamilies are also increasing. This complicated family structuring will expose children to situations that demand adjustment to novel and complex relationships with sets of parents and siblings. Different father types—biological, ''social,'' stepfather—will increasingly shape children's attachments, social-emotional competencies, linguistic and cognitive attainments, and orientation to family and work. Theoretical models of parenting must be reformulated to accommodate new family structures as well as culturally diverse conceptions of fatherhood.

Investigators of father involvement have struggled with definitions of what it means to be an ''involved father.'' Father involvement is a multidimensional, continually evolving concept—both at the level of scholarship and at the level of cultural awareness. Although cultural ideals of fatherhood have evolved over time, much of what is understood about parenting (and particularly what is thought of as good parenting) stems from research and theory developed on mothers—the maternal template. In effect, it is a struggle against generational, gender, class, and ethnic biases.

The unidimensional focus of father involvement research (i.e., on the amount of fathering) in the 1970s and 1980s yielded to broader and more inclusive definitions. For example, Michael Lamb and his colleagues, in a 1987 article, distinguished among accessibility—a father's presence and availability to the child, regardless of the actual interactions between father and child; engagement—a father's experience of direct contact, caregiving, and shared interactions with his child; and responsibility—a father's participation in such tasks as selecting a pediatrician and making appointments, selecting child-care settings or babysitters, arranging after-school care and the care of sick children, talking with teachers, and monitoring children's whereabouts and activities. Others have distinguished among the types of activities in which fathers and their children engage (e.g., play, direct care) or between the quantity and quality of care.

Multidimensional constructions of father involvement, however, have not yet been integrated into a comprehensive conceptual framework. The challenge for researchers is to strike a balance between sensitivity to multiple dimensions of father involvement and explanatory parsimony. Questions need to be asked about relations among dimensions of father involvement and how changes to one dimension (e.g., responsibility) affect others (e.g., availability). In addition, it is unclear whether these models capture variation across types of family structure and ethnic/ cultural groups. Likewise, researchers must consider father involvement as it operates within a family system that gives it a particular meaning and significance.

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