ResearchFatherhood & Family, Mental Health, Black Boys & Men

Dads Rock: The Evidence

Jun 13, 2024
Ben Smith, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Jay Fagan
An ancient vase depicting a man playing with his son


The evidence is clear: Dads matter; they are doing more fathering than ever; they bring something extra to parenting; and they want to do more.


Have you come across other evidence on the importance of fatherhood? Let us know.


1. Dads matter

Fathers have a direct, positive impact on the social, emotional, and cognitive development of their children, and this shows up in measures of educational achievement, social skills, and long-term mental health.¹⁻⁴ While fathers do more paid work, and perform less childcare overall than mothers, they play a unique and complementary role in child raising.

While they play an essential role at all stages of a child’s life from infancy to adulthood, their presence seems especially influential as they grow older. A father’s closeness to his child in middle childhood and adolescence protects against loneliness and depressive symptoms, particularly in girls. Sixteen-year-old girls who are close to their fathers have better mental health at 33. Controlling for many other factors, the adolescent delinquency rate for boys is lower when they have involved fathers. As Anna Machin, a scholar of fatherhood, writes:

[M]any dads in the West really step into their role during late childhood and adolescence, particularly when the time comes to teach their children. It’s that all-important role in preparing children to step into the big wide world.


2. Dads are doing more

Since the 1960s, the time fathers spend with their children has increased by over 250%. As mothers have entered the labor force in greater numbers, fathers have reduced the average amount of time they spend in paid work, and increased the time they spend completing household activities and caring for their children.





Time use data from 1965-2000 comes from Bianchi, Suzanne M., John P. Robinson, and Melissa A. Milke. The Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. Specifically, Tables 5A.1 and 5A.2.

Time use from 2003 through 2022 is based on an analysis using the American Time Use Survey.

How categories were constructed using American Time Use Survey data:

  • The “Paid work” category is based on “Working and work related activities (includes travel)” ACTCODE 600013 and includes working, work-related activities, other income-generating activities, job search and interviewing, and travel related to work.
  • The “Child care” category is based on “Caring for and helping household children” ACTCODE 600008 and includes activities such as providing physical care, reading, talking, playing, helping household children with homework, and more.
  • The “Housework” category is based on the “Household Activities” ACTCODE 600003 and includes activities such as housework; food preparation and cleanup; lawn and garden care; household management; interior and exterior maintenance, repair, and decoration; pet care, vehicle and tool care, and travel related to household activities.

See “APPENDIX H: Bridge between published activity categories and ATUS coding lexicon activity categories” in American Time Use Survey User’s Guide: Understanding ATUS 2003 to 2022. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023.


3. Dads parent a bit differently, and that’s good

While fathers are often considered “secondary caregivers” for their children, “helping” mothers or even “babysitting” their own children, this hugely downplays their role and the significant impacts they can have. Moreover, they play a unique role: sociologist David Eggebeen shows that 42% of parental inputs were “additive” (i.e., that even when the activities of each parent were similar, they nevertheless provide a cumulative benefit), 12% were redundant, and 22% were unique—that is, they came only from the father or mother.

There are some things that fathers are especially good at providing their children. As William Jeynes, author of a meta-analysis on the role of fathers, writes, while mothers tend to be “more nurturing in their relationships with children, fathers tend to be more involved in preparing children to deal with life.”¹⁰ And they tend to do this through play, teaching, challenging, and modeling behavior.

Play: Dads spend a larger percentage of their time with children engaged in play, as shown in Figure 2. While the idea of Dads as the “play parent” is often used as a negative criticism, it is better to see it as a positive contribution. Play is critical to children’s development, helping them learn to manage their emotions, develop social skills, and regulate their behavior.¹¹ The play dads engage in is different from the type mothers engage in, typically involving more rough-and-tumble physical activities, which particularly supports behavioral and motor skills.¹²⁻¹⁴




Analysis completed using 2022 American Time Use Survey and activity codes involving care for household children.

Basic Care includes the following activity codes:

  • 030101: Physical care for hh children
  • 030109: Looking after hh children (as a primary activity)
  • 030301: Providing medical care to hh children
  • 030302: Obtaining medical care for hh children
  • 030111: Waiting for/with hh children
  • 030112: Picking up/dropping off hh children
  • 030303: Waiting associated with hh children’s health
  • 030199: Caring for & helping hh children, n.e.c.*
  • 030299: Activities related hh child’s health, n.e.c.*
  • 030204: Waiting associated with hh children’s education
  • 030108: Organization & planning for hh children

Educational Activities include the following activity codes:

  • 030201: Homework (hh children)
  • 030202: Meetings and school conferences (hh children)
  • 030203: Home schooling of hh children
  • 030299: Activities related to hh child’s education, n.e.c.*

Play and Recreation includes the following activity codes:

  • 030103: Playing with hh children, not sports
  • 030104: Arts and crafts with hh children
  • 030105: Playing sports with hh children
  • 030110: Attending hh children’s events

Talking and Reading includes the following activity codes:

  • 030102: Reading to/with hh children
  • 030106: Talking with/listening to hh children


Teaching and Challenging:  Fathers help children explore by encouraging them to take risks, challenging them, and setting appropriate limits to stay safe. As one seminal review of the literature in fatherhood research concluded:

Fathers play a particularly important role in the development of children’s openness to the outside world and their autonomy. Men seem to have a tendency to surprise children, to destabilize them momentarily, and to encourage them to take ‘risks,’ thus enabling children to learn to be brave in unfamiliar situations and to stand up for themselves. Children seem to need to be stimulated and motivated as much as they need to be calmed and secured, and they receive such stimulation primarily from men…¹⁵

A more recent review found children with fathers who engaged in this high-quality paternal “activation parenting” tended to have better self-regulation and fewer emotional difficulties.¹⁶ There’s also evidence fathers uniquely challenge their children via language—asking them more “wh-” questions—which in turn stimulates their language development.¹⁷ Within Black households in particular, fathers also play a key role in teaching their older children how to protect themselves from violence and victimization.¹⁸

Modeling behavior: In addition to the primary childcare provided by parents, the American Time Use Survey also tracks the provision of secondary childcare—i.e., care for kids under 13 years old that’s provided “while doing something else”—where that “something else” could be fixing things around the house, socializing with friends, or working.

Fathers spend several hours each day providing such care (as do mothers), and this can be an important channel through which to model behavior. Witnessing the way fathers conduct themselves, what tasks they take on, and how they communicate can help children learn effective ways to solve problems, interact with others, and regulate their emotions. Fathers can help their daughters understand what a protective male relationship entails, and they can teach their sons a more prosocial masculinity.¹⁹ ²⁰ A father who has a more egalitarian views—who, for instance, prepares dinner or does the laundry—in turn tends to transmit to his sons “less knowledge about feminine stereotypes.”²¹

4. Dads want to do more

Fathers spend much more time with their children than they did decades ago, but want to do even more. Almost two in three dads (63%) say they spend too little time with their kids, according to a 2017²², Pew survey. Only 35% of mothers said the same thing. A more recent 2023 survey, also by Pew, found that fathers were about 50% more likely than mothers to say they were less involved in their young adult child’s life than they’d like to be. A New America survey found that fathers were more likely than mothers to feel work demands get in the way of home and family time.

Fathers have always played a significant economic role in their children’s lives. Dads today also play an increasingly large part in their child’s growth and development. Let’s wish them a Happy Father’s Day. They deserve it!

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at The Ohio State University and President of the Board of the Council on Contemporary Families, and Jay Fagan is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Work at Temple University. Together, they authored ‘The Evolution of Fathering Research in the 21st Century: Persistent Challenges, New Directions,’ published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2020.



¹Lamb, M. E. (Ed.). (1997). The role of the father in child development (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons Inc. 

²Lang, S. N., Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Kotila, L. E., Feng, X., Kamp Dush, C. M., & Johnson, S. C. (2014). Relations between fathers’ and mothers’ infant engagement patterns in dual-earner families and toddler competence. Journal of family issues, 35(8), 1107-1127.

³Yoon, S., Kim, M., Yang, J., Lee, J. Y., Latelle, A., Wang, J., & Schoppe-Sullivan, S. (2021). Patterns of father involvement and child development among families with low income. Children, 8(12), 1164.  

⁴McLanahan S, Tach L, Schneider D. The Causal Effects of Father Absence. Annu Rev Sociol. 2013 Jul;39:399-427. doi: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145704. PMID: 24489431; PMCID: PMC3904543.

⁵Machin, A. (2018). The life of dad: The making of a modern father. Simon and Schuster. Page 111

Yan, J., Schoppe‐Sullivan, S., & Feng, X. (2019). Trajectories of mother-child and father-child relationships across middle childhood and associations with depressive symptoms. Development and Psychopathology, 31, 1381 – 1393.

⁷Flouri E, Buchanan A. The role of father involvement in children’s later mental health. J Adolesc. 2003 Feb;26(1):63-78. doi: 10.1016/s0140-1971(02)00116-1. PMID: 12550822.

Cobb-Clark, Deborah A., and Erdal Tekin. “Fathers and youths’ delinquent behavior.” Review of Economics of the Household 12 (2014): 327-358.

⁹See for example David J Eggebeen, “Do Fathers Uniquely Matter for Adolescent Well-Being” in Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives, p 267. 

¹⁰Jeynes, William H. “Meta-analysis on the roles of fathers in parenting: Are they unique?.” Marriage & Family Review 52.7 (2016): 665-688, as summarized in  

¹¹Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Kotila, L. E., Jia, R., Bower, D. J., & Lang, S. N. (2013). Comparisons of levels and predictors of mothers’ and fathers’ engagement with their preschool-age children. Early Child Development and Care, 183, 498-514.  

¹²Amodia-Bidakowska, A., Laverty, C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2020). Father-child play: A systematic review of its frequency, characteristics and potential impact on children’s development. Developmental Review, 57, 100924.  

¹³Robinson, E. L., St George, J., & Freeman, E. E. (2021). A systematic review of father–child play interactions and the impacts on child development. Children, 8(5), 389.  ; Annabel Amodia-Bidakowska, et al. 

¹⁴St George, J., & Freeman, E. (2017). Measurement of father–child rough‐and‐tumble play and its relations to child behavior. Infant Mental Health Journal, 38(6), 709-725. 

¹⁵Paquette, Daniel. “Theorizing the father-child relationship: Mechanisms and developmental outcomes.” Human development 47.4 (2004): 193-219. Full paper accessible here

¹⁶Feldman, Julia S., and Daniel S. Shaw. “The premise and promise of activation parenting for fathers: A review and integration of extant literature.” Clinical child and family psychology review 24.3 (2021): 414-449.

¹⁷Rowe, M. L., Leech, K. A., & Cabrera, N. (2017). Going beyond input quantity: Wh‐questions matter for toddlers’ language and cognitive development. Cognitive Science, 41, 162-179.  

¹⁸Johnson, W. E. et al. (2020). “Remain calm, negotiate or defer but by all means, call me”: Father-son communication to keep sons safe from violence involvement and victimization. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 71, Article 101213. 

¹⁹Pakaluk, C. R., & Price, J. (2020). Are Mothers and Fathers Interchangeable Caregivers? Marriage & Family Review, 56(8), 784–793.400;”>

²⁰Erickson, J. (2015). Fathers Don’t Mother and Mothers Don’t Father: What Social Science Research Indicates about the Distinctive Contributions of Mothers and Fathers to Children’s Development. Available at SSRN 2519862.

²¹Paul Halpern H, Perry-Jenkins M. Parents’ Gender Ideology and Gendered Behavior as Predictors of Children’s Gender-Role Attitudes: A Longitudinal Exploration. Sex Roles. 2016 May;74(11):527-542. doi: 10.1007/s11199-015-0539-0. Epub 2015 Sep 9. PMID: 27445431; PMCID: PMC4945126.

²²In 2020, during the pandemic, this figure dropped to 48% among fathers and 28% among mothers. This may be attributable to fathers and mothers indeed spending more time with their children during the pandemic. Unfortunately, data collection for the American Time Use Survey data in 2020 was also interrupted.