Family Engagement

Appreciating How Fathers Give Children a Head Start

Mothers and fathers are more likely to become involved in their children's education if they believe they can make a difference. Parents can learn about the different ways that fathers can make a difference in the lives of their children. Children with involved fathers show up to school ready to learn.

How Father Involvement Improves Child Well-Being
The Problem of Fatherlessness
How Father-Love Is Different From Mother-Love and Why It Matters
Reading List: Resources on Why Fathers Matter


Nearly 30 years ago, leading child psychologist Michael E. Lamb reminded us that fathers are the "forgotten contributors to child development."1 Since then, much work has been done to explore the ways fathers uniquely contribute to the healthy development of their children. Scholars now know that boys and girls who grow up with an involved father, as well as an involved mother, have stronger cognitive and motor skills, enjoy elevated levels of physical and mental health, become better problem-solvers, and are more confident, curious, and empathetic. They also show greater moral sensitivity and self-control.

As they grow, well-fathered children are substantially less likely to be sexually involved at an early age, have babies out of wedlock, or be involved in criminal or violent behavior. They are much more likely to stay in school, do well there, and go to college.

Fathers can help Head Start programs become more effective in achieving positive outcomes for children. Head Start programs can help to strengthen the parenting partnership, and help fathers to be more effective in their children's lives.

These five Building Blocks for Father Involvement will support Head Start programs in their efforts to promote father involvement. Building Block 1 provides up-to-date research on the essential role that fathers play in the healthy development of their children.

It is important that Head Start staff and parents understand the importance of the parenting partnership and why fathers are essential to children's well-being. This knowledge will help them to better meet the needs of families and children.

How Father Involvement Improves Child Well-Being

There is a substantial body of research literature documenting the positive benefits fathers bring to the lives of their children. A review of studies on father involvement and child well-being published since 1980 found that 82 percent of these studies showed "significant associations between positive father involvement and offspring well-being…"2

An analysis of over 100 studies on parent-child relationships found that having a loving and nurturing father was as important for a child's happiness, well-being, and social and academic success as having a loving and nurturing mother. Some studies indicated father-love was a stronger contributor to some important positive child well-being outcomes.3 Weinraub, in "Fatherhood: the Myth of the Second Class Parent," states that "There is no doubt that fathers are important contributors to child development. In particular, fathers significantly affect the development of sex roles, cognitive abilities and achievement motivation."4

School Readiness and Behavior

Children who have an involved father in their lives in the early years show up for school with more of the qualities needed for learning. They are more patient, curious, and confident. They are better able to remain in their seats, wait patiently for their teacher, and maintain interest in their own work.5

Educational psychologist Paul Amato explains that this higher level of self-control in school children with involved fathers was also associated with many other healthy qualities, such as improved general life skills, self-esteem, and higher social skills.6

Kyle Pruett, in Fatherneed, reports on another major scientific study that linked positive fatherhood involvement with:

  • Lowered levels of disruptive behavior, acting out, depression, and telling lies;
  • Obeying parents, being kind to others, and being responsible;
  • Fewer behavioral problems in young boys; and
  • Girls being happier, more confident, and willing to try new things.

Pruett concludes, "Positive father care is associated with more pro-social and positive moral behavior overall in boys and girls."7

Cognitive, Motor, and Verbal Development

Psychologist Ellen Bing was one of the first scholars to explore how fatherhood impacts child well-being. In the early 1960s, she found that children who had fathers who read to them regularly were more likely to do much better in many important cognitive skill categories than children who did not have fathers who read to them. Interestingly, one of the strongest benefits was a substantial increase in a daughter's verbal skills.8

A study nearly ten years later, published in Developmental Psychology, found that both well-fathered preschool boys and girls had increased verbal skills compared with kids with absent or overbearing fathers.9

Ross Parke's research shows that father involvement in the early months of a child's life contributes to increased intellectual, motor, and physical development.10

Henry Biller, noted fatherhood researcher, finds time and again that father-involved children are more confident and successful in solving complex mathematical and logical puzzles. This may be because fathers tend to be more specialized in and have a higher interest in analytical problems. Norma Radin found that high father involvement contributed to higher mathematical competencies in young daughters.11

Michael Yogman conducted a study of the role fathering plays in overcoming the effects of prematurity in Latino, African-American, and other inner-city populations. When he followed up with these preemies at 3 years of age, Yogman found that kids with highly involved fathers had substantially higher cognitive skills than those children who did not have involved fathers.12

Michael Lamb found that preschool children who had involved fathers had higher cognitive competencies on standardized intellectual assessments.13

Security, Confidence, and Attachment

Infants who have involved fathers in their lives for the first 18 to 24 months of life are more secure and are more likely to explore the world around them with increased enthusiasm and curiosity than children who did not have close, involved fathers. Father's active play and slower response to help the child through frustrating situations promotes problem-solving competencies and independence in the child.14

Making Wise Life Choices

Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that children who feel a closeness and warmth with their father are twice as likely to enter college, 75 percent less likely to have a child in their teen years, 80 percent less likely to be incarcerated, and half as likely to show various signs of depression.15

"A white teenage girl from an advantaged background is five times more likely to become a teen mother if she grows up in a single-mother household than if she grows up in a household with both biological parents."16

The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father and triples if he lives in a neighborhood with a high concentration of fatherless families.17

"The research is absolutely clear … the one human being most capable of curbing the antisocial aggression of a boy is his biological father."18

Development of Empathy

A long-term study started in the 1950s found that the strongest indicator for a child being empathetic later in adulthood was warm father involvement in the early years of the child's life.19

In a 26-year-long study, researchers found that the number one factor in developing empathy in children was father involvement. Fathers spending regular time alone with their children translated into children who became compassionate adults.20

Kyle Pruett, after reviewing the large body of research on father involvement and child development, concludes "these findings take us beyond a shadow of a doubt" that fathers play an important and irreplaceable role in healthy child development. He adds, "the closer the connection between father and child, the better off they both are now and in the future."21

The Problem of Fatherlessness

Just as it has documented the many benefits of positive father involvement, the research is clear on father absence and its negative consequences for children.

How Many Fatherless Children Are There in America?

  • The United States is the world's leader in fatherless families.22
  • Tonight, some 24 million children (approximately 34 percent of all children) will go to bed in a home where their father does not reside.23
  • Nearly 40 percent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their father at all during the past year.24
  • More than half of all children who do not live with their father have never been in their father's home.25

Percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers (by race):26
African-American children: 66 percent
Hispanic children: 35 percent
White children: 27 percent.

  • Single mothers are the primary caregivers in 84 percent of all single-parent families.27

Fatherless Family Growth Over the Decades

  • From 1960 to 1996, the number of children who lived in homes without a father or stepfather rose from 7 million to nearly 20 million. However, since the mid-1990s, the number of children in fatherless homes has leveled off.28
  • The number of children raised by single mothers more than tripled between 1960 and 2000—from 5.1 million to 16.2 million.29
  • In 1960, only 4 percent of single mothers had never been married. In 2000, this number was up to 41 percent.30

Good News

The percentage of children under the age of 18 who were raised by only a mother was steady from 1985–1990. This number dropped eight percent between 1995–2000.31

Attitudes Toward Fathers and Fatherlessness

  • Sixty-four percent of Americans believe that the rise of single-parent families is very problematic.32
  • A poll conducted in 1999 found that 77 percent of Americans feel that upsurges in divorce and single parenting have weakened family connectivity.33
  • When asked to name the adult "you most look up to and admire," only 20 percent of children in single-parent families named their father, compared to 52 percent of children in two-parent families.34
  • Seven in 10 adults believe a child needs a home with both a mother and a father to grow up happy.35

How Father-Love Is Different From Mother-Love and Why It Matters

Mothers and fathers parent differently, and this difference is a big benefit for children.

Fatherhood is just as essential to healthy child development as motherhood. The professional journal, Review of General Psychology, finds that "Evidence suggests that the influence of father love on offspring's development is as great as and occasionally greater than the influence of mother love."36 Fathering expert Dr. Kyle Pruett explains in Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, "Fathers do not mother."37Psychology Today states that, "Fatherhood turns out to be a complex and unique phenomenon with huge consequences for the emotional and intellectual growth of children."38 Erik Erikson, a pioneer in the world of child psychology, explained that father love and mother love are qualitatively different kinds of love. Fathers "love more dangerously," Erikson states, because their love is more "expectant, more instrumental" than a mother's love.39 A father, as a male biological parent, brings unique contributions to the job of parenting a child that no one else can provide.

These are some of the most compelling ways father involvement makes a unique and positive difference in a child's life.

Fathers Parent Differently

The mother/father difference provides an important diversity of experiences for children. Dr. Pruett explains that fathers have a distinct style of communication and interaction with children. By 8 weeks of age, infants can tell the difference between their mother or father in interactions. This diversity, in itself, provides children with a broader, richer experience of contrasting relational interactions—more so than for children who are raised by only one parent. Whether they realize it or not, children are learning at an early age, through experience, that men and women are different and have different ways of dealing with life, other adults, and children.

Fathers Play Differently

While mothers and fathers are both physical with their children, fathers are typically physical in different ways. Fathers tend to play with their children, and mothers tend to care for them. Generally speaking, fathers tickle more, they wrestle, and they throw their children in the air (while mothers warn "Not so high!"). Fathers chase their children, sometimes as playful, scary "monsters." Fathers are louder at play, while mothers are quieter. Mothers cuddle babies, and fathers bounce them. Fathers roughhouse, while mothers are gentle. Fathers encourage competition; mothers encourage equity. Fathers encourage independence while mothers encourage security.

Fathering expert John Snarey notes that children who roughhouse with their fathers learn that biting, kicking, and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable.40 They learn self-control by being told when "enough is enough" and when to "settle down." Fathers help girls and boys learn a healthy balance between timidity and aggression. Children need mom's softness, as well as dad's roughhousing. Both provide security and confidence in their own ways by communicating love and physical intimacy.

Fathers Build Confidence

Go to any playground and listen to the parents there. Who is often encouraging kids to swing or climb just a little higher, ride their bike just a little faster, or throw just a little harder? Who is encouraging kids to be careful? Mothers tend toward caution while fathers often encourage kids to push the limits. Either of these parenting styles by themselves can be unhealthy. One can tend toward encouraging risk without consideration of consequences. The other tends to avoid risk, which can fail to build independence, confidence, and progress. Joined together, they keep each other in balance and help children remain safe while expanding their experiences and confidence.

Fathers Communicate Differently

A major study showed that, when speaking to children, mothers and fathers are different.41 Mothers typically simplify their words and speak on the child's level. Fathers are not as inclined to modify their language for the child.

Mother's way facilitates immediate communication. Father's way challenges the child to expand his or her vocabulary and linguistic skills—an important building block of academic success.

Father's talk tends to be more brief, directive, and to the point. It also makes greater use of facial expressions and subtle body language. Mothers tend to be more descriptive, personal, and verbally encouraging. Children who do not learn how to understand and use both styles of conversation will be at a disadvantage, because they will experience both of these styles as they enter the adult world.

Fathers Discipline Differently

Educational psychologist Carol Gilligan tells us that fathers stress justice, fairness, and duty (based on rules), while mothers stress sympathy, care and help (based on relationships).42 Fathers tend to observe and enforce rules systematically and sternly, which teach children the objectivity and consequences of right and wrong. Mothers tend toward grace and sympathy in the midst of disobedience, which provide a sense of hopefulness. Again, either of these by themselves is not good, but, together, they create a healthy, proper balance.

Fathers Prepare Children for the Real World

Generally speaking, fathers tend to see their child in relation to the rest of the world, while mothers tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their child. For example, mothers are often very aware of things from the outside world that could hurt their child (e.g., violence, lightning, accidents, disease, strange people, dogs or cats). Fathers, while not unconcerned with these things, tend to focus on how their children will or will not be prepared for something they might encounter in the world.

Fathers often help children see that particular attitudes and behaviors have certain consequences. For instance, fathers are more likely to tell their children that if they are not nice to others, kids will not want to play with them. Or that, if they don't do well in school, they will not get into college or land a good job. Generally speaking, fathers help children prepare for the reality and harshness of the real world, and mothers help protect against it. Both are necessary as children grow into adulthood.

Fathers Provide a Look at the World of Men

Men and women are different. They eat differently. They dress differently. They smell differently. They cope with life differently. Stereotypically, fathers do "man things" and mothers do "woman things."

Girls and boys who grow up with a father are more familiar and secure with the world of men. Girls with involved fathers are more likely to have healthier, more confident relationships with boys in adolescence and men in adulthood. This is because girls have a greater opportunity to learn from their fathers how men should act toward women. They understand from experience which behaviors are inappropriate. Girls raised by involved fathers also have a healthy familiarity with the world of men. They don't wonder how a man's facial stubble feels or what it's like to be hugged by strong arms. This knowledge builds emotional security and safety from the exploitation of predatory males.

Boys who grow up with dads are less likely to be violent. They have their masculinity affirmed and can learn from their fathers how to channel that masculinity and strength in positive ways. Fathers can help boys understand appropriate male sexuality, hygiene, and age-appropriate behavior. It can be difficult for mothers to teach these things to their boys.

Fathers Can Teach Respect for the Other Sex

Research consistently shows married fathers are substantially less likely to abuse their wives or children than other men.43 This means that boys and girls with married fathers in the home are more likely to learn by observation how men should treat women.

Girls with involved fathers, therefore, are more likely to select good boyfriends and husbands because they have had a good model by which to judge all candidates. Fathers also help weed out bad candidates. Boys raised with fathers are more likely to be good husbands because they can emulate their fathers' strengths and learn from their shortcomings.

The American Journal of Sociology finds that, "Societies with father-present patterns of child socialization produce men who are less inclined to exclude women from public activities than their counterparts in father-absent societies."44

Fathers Connect Children with Job Markets

A crucial point in life is the transition from financial dependence to independence. This is usually a gradual process, spanning from about 16 to 22 years of age. Fathers can help connect their children—especially boys—to job markets as they enter adulthood. Fathers often have the kinds of diverse community connections needed to help young adults get their first jobs. When dad is not around, boys may be less likely to have the connections and motivation necessary to land a summer job.


As noted sociologist David Popenoe explains, "Fathers are far more than just 'second adults' in the home. Involved fathers—especially biological fathers—bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring."45 Fathers make substantial contributions to the lives of their children. Children are impoverished developmentally when they are deprived of their father's love.

The Review of General Psychology states, "Many studies conclude that children with highly involved fathers, in relation to children with less involved fathers, tend to be more cognitively and socially competent, less inclined toward gender stereotyping, more empathetic, and psychologically better adjusted."46

Fathers help children attain all the positive outcomes that Head Start programs do. Fathers can help Head Start programs become more effective. Head Start programs can help fathers be more effective in their children's lives. Building Blocks 25 will help programs to prepare, plan, and sustain their efforts to make fathers a key and effective part of their missions.

Reading List: Resources on Understanding Why Fathers Matter

Paul R. Amato and Fernando Rivera, "Paternal Involvement and Children's Behavior Problems," Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 375-384

Ronald J. Angel and Jacqueline L. Angel, Painful Inheritance: Health and the New Generation of Fatherless Families, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)

Henry B. Biller, Father and Families: Paternal Factors in Child Development (Westport, CT: Auburn House, 1993)

David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1994)

Michael E. Lamb, "Fathers: The Forgotten Contributors to Child Development," Human Development 18 (1975): 245-266

Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Helps, What Hurts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994)

Ross D. Parke, Fathers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981)

David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York: The Free Press, 1996)

Kyle D. Pruett, Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child (New York: The Free Press, 2000)

Ronald P. Rohner and Robert A. Veneziano, "The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence," Review of General Psychology 5.4 (2001): 382–405

John Snarey, How Fathers Care for the Next Generation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)


1 Michael E. Lamb, "Fathers: The Forgotten Contributors to Child Development," Human Development 18 (1975): 245-266.
2 Paul R. Amato and Fernando Rivera, "Paternal Involvement and Children's Behavior Problems," Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 375-384.
3 Rohner and Veneziano, 2001, pp. 382-405.
4 M. Weinraub, "Fatherhood: The Myth of the Second Class Parent," in J.H. Stevens and M. Matthews, eds., Mother/Child and Father/Child Relationships (Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1978), p. 127.
5 Henry B. Biller, Father and Families: Paternal Factors in Child Development (Westport, CT: Auburn House, 1993).
6 Paul R. Amato, Children in Australian Families: The Growth of Competence (New York: Prentice Hall, 1987).
7 Pruett, 2000, p. 52.
8 Ellen Bing, "The Effect of Child-Rearing Practices on the Development of Differential Cognitive Abilities," Child Development 34 (1963): 631-648.
9 Norma Radin, "Father-Child Interaction and the Intellectual Functioning of Four-Year-Old Boys," Developmental Psychology 6 (1972): 353-361.
10 Ross Parke, Fatherhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
11 Henry B. Biller, "The Father and Personality Development: Paternal Deprivation and Sex-Role Development," in Michael E. Lamb, ed., The Role of the Father in Child Development (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1981), p. 104; Norma Radin, cited in Pruett, 2000, p. 45.
12 Michael Yogman, et al., "Father Involvement and Cognitive/Behavioral Outcomes of Preterm Infants," Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 34 (1995): 58-66.
13 Michael E. Lamb, "Introduction: The Emergent American Father," in Michael E. Lamb, ed., The Father's Role: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum and Associates), pp. 3–25.
14 Pruett, 2000, p. 41–42.
15 Frank Furstenberg and Kathleen Harris, "When and Why Fathers Matter: Impacts of Father Involvement on Children of Adolescent Mothers," R. Lerman and T. Ooms, eds. in Young Unwed Fathers: Changing Roles and Emerging Policies (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
16 Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "Facing the Challenge of Fragmented Families," The Philanthropy Roundtable 9.1 (1995): 21.
17 Anne Hill and June O'Neil, Underclass Behaviors in the United States: Measurements and Analysis or Determinants (New York: City University of New York, 1993).
18 Forensic Psychologist Shawn Johnston, quoted in The Pittsburgh Tribune Review, March 29, 1998, from Wade and Sylvester, 2002, p. 106.
19 Robert R. Sears, et al., Patterns of Childrearing (Evanston, IL: Row Peterson, 1957); Pruett, 2000, p. 48.
20 Richard Koestner, et al., "The Family Origins of Empathic Concern: A Twenty-Six Year Longitudinal Study," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58 (1990): 709-717.
21 Pruett, 2000, p. 44, 41.
22 Alisa Burns and Cath Scott, Mother-Headed Families and Why They Have Increased (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum and Associates, 1994), p. xiii.
23 Wade F. Horn and Tom Sylvester, Father Facts, Fourth Edition (Gaithersburg, MD: National Fatherhood Initiative, 2002), p. 15.
24 Horn and Sylvester, 2002, p. 15.
25 Horn and Sylvester, 2002, p. 28.
26 U. S. Census Bureau, "Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years Old: 1960 to Present."
27 Jason Fields, "The Living Arrangements of Children: Fall 1996," Current Population Reports, 70-74, Washington D.C.; U.S. Census Bureau, 2001.
28 Horn and Sylvester, 2002, p. 12.
29 U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P20-537, Table CH-5. Washington DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2001.
30 U. S. Census Bureau, 2001, Table CH-5.
31 Allen Dupree and Wendell Primus, "Declining Share of Children Living With Single Mothers in the Late 1990s," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Washington, D.C., June 15, 2001, p. 1.
32 "The Rise of Single-Parent Households." Hart and Teeter Research Companies for NBC News, Wall Street Journal, June 16-19, 1999.
33 New York Times poll, July 17-19, 1999.
34 Horn and Sylvester, 2002, p. 27.
35 George Gallup, "Report on the Status of Fatherhood in the United States," Emerging Trends 20 (1998): 3-5.
36 Ronald Rohner and Robert Veneziano, "The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence," Review of General Psychology, 5 (2001) 382-405.
37 Kyle D. Pruett, Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, (New York: The Free Press, 2000), pp. 17-34.
38 "Shuttle Diplomacy," Psychology Today, July/August 1993, p. 15.
39 As cited in Kyle D. Pruett, The Nurturing Father, (New York: Warner Books, 1987), p. 49.
40 John Snarey, How Fathers Care for the Next Generation: A Four Decade Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 35-36.
41 Eleanor E. Maccoby, The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart; Coming Together (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 269.
42 David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (New York: The Free Press, 1996) p. 146.
43 Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage (New York: Doubleday, 2000); David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York: The Free Press, 1996); Glenn T. Stanton, Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society (Colorado Springs: Pinon Press, 1997).
44 Scott Coltrane, "Father-Child Relationships and the Status of Women: A Cross-Cultural Study," American Journal of Sociology, 93 (1988) p. 1088.
45 David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 163.
46 Rohner and Veneziano, 2001, p. 392.

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Appreciating How Fathers Give Children A Head Start