Keeping Young Fathers Involved with Their Children

by Barbara Ray


How do we keep young fathers involved in their children’s lives? As ample research has shown, many young men are in the delivery room when their child is born. Yet five years later, the number of involved fathers has dwindled.

father’s involvement with his children is affected by numerous things, including his age, education, his relationship with the mother and her family, his own mother’s view of his impending fatherhood, his ability to provide financial support, and the custody arrangements, among other factors.

An early 2000s study called “Time, Love Cash, Care, and Children (TLC3) examined why young couples break up and others stay together and why some young fathers remain attached to their children and others do not. While no surprise to any new parent, the researchers found that the birth of a child, while joyous, injects a lot of stress and disharmony into a relationship, even a strong one. The once devoted-to-each-other couple now has to fight for time alone, and as a result their relationship often suffers. Often dads distance themselves because they feel inadequate in the parenting role, or don’t trust their instincts about how to care for an infant. New mothers may feel overwhelmed and at times suffer from post-partum depression.

Other pressures on new fathers include the inability to provide a steady income for the new family to live on, particularly if the young father has limited education. And for far too many young men, particularly men of color, they are or risk becoming incarcerated. A black male in his 30s without a high school diploma has a better chance of landing in prison than in a job.

An interesting study by Robert Lerman in the journal Future of Children reveals something we also document in Knot Yet: men who are in a committed relationship tend to earn more over time than other men, perhaps because of the sense of responsibility of fatherhood:

Men who lose touch with their children are likely to see their earnings stagnate, provide less financial support, and often face new obligations when they father children with another partner. By contrast, the unwed fathers who marry or cohabit with their child’s mother earn considerably higher wages and work substantially more than unwed fathers who do not marry or cohabit. These results suggest that unwed fathers’ earnings are affected by family relationships as well as their education and work experience.

Whatever the cause of the distancing, it is hard on children. Therefore, several programs over the years have been launched to try to solder together these relationships.

The Bush administration promoted many such marriage education programs, although few were successful. The Building Strong Families (BSF) project, sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, developed, implemented, and tested voluntary programs that offered relationship skills education and other support services to unwed couples who were expecting or who had just had a baby. Researchers evaluated eight of the organizations that took part.

As the evaluators at Mathematica report:

When data for the eight programs were combined, BSF had no effect on couples’ relationship quality or the likelihood that they remained romantically involved or got married. However, the results varied across the eight programs included in the evaluation. The BSF program in Oklahoma City had a consistent pattern of positive effects on relationship outcomes [but those effects faded after year 3], while the Baltimore program had a number of negative effects. The other BSF programs generally had little or no effect on relationships.


In fact, there was some evidence that fathers in the program ”were somewhat less likely than control group fathers to spend time with their children and to provide financial support for them.”

The researchers speculate that one reason for this retreat may have to do with the pressure to provide.

The need for fathers to “step up” and be more responsible was one of the strongest messages that couples took from the program. This expectation may have led some fathers in particularly disadvantaged circumstances to instead distance themselves from their partner and children.”

Another reason for this poor showing, the researchers proffer, is the lack of trust in the relationships (at least compared with more successful programs for married couples).

“The behavioral changes required to improve a couple’s relationship may involve substantial personal effort. Partners who are less committed to a relationship or distrustful of the commitment of their partner may be more reluctant to do the hard work that relationship improvement may require.”

The connection between being a provider and failed relationships is one reason that the editors at Future of Children argue for creating more community-based programs aimed at raising nonresident fathers’ earnings, child support payments, and parental involvement.

This connection is also one reason we stress several educational and economic policy changes to improve the prospects for young couples. Putting post-secondary education within reach for young Middle American young men (and women) is a crucial first step. In addition to paying attention to cost barriers, we should be creating more viable, alternative education pathways, including more directed technical degrees, lower-cost alternatives, more apprenticeships, and greater collaboration between business and community colleges to design programs that meet local demand for jobs and thus increase the prospects of being hired. On the job, we need to promote better job laddering to help entry-level workers move up to better positions either within or across firms. Don Peck in his book Pinched offers many good ideas along these lines.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be talking more about these and other ideas for addressing the rise in the number of children living in single-parent families and the decline of marriage among Middle American young adults.