Public Release: 

Daddy counts

The role of fathers in low-income families

Society for Research in Child Development

Although it is well recognized that both mothers and fathers play an important role in their children's cognitive development and academic achievement, most of the research on fathers' roles has focused on middle-class, Caucasian, intact families.

So little is known about the ways in which low-income men interact with their young children, and whether these interactions have immediate and/or lasting effects on their children's development. Thus, in this study we set out to explore whether the quality of fathers' and mothers' interactions with their children related similarly to their children's outcomes, and whether fathers still affect their children's outcomes when the influences of the mothers' interactions and the parents' education and income are considered.

Study participants were 290 racially/ethnically diverse, low-income, resident fathers, mothers and their children from the Early Head Start National Research and Evaluation Project. The fathers and mothers were videotaped as they played (individually) with their 24- and 36-month old children for 10 minutes. Measures of children's language and cognitive development were obtained at both ages.

We assessed the quality of father-child and mother-child interactions using six dimensions of parenting, three of which were positive (i.e., sensitivity, positive affect/ warmth, and cognitive stimulation) and three of which were negative (i.e., negative affect/harshness, intrusiveness, and detachment). The three positive dimensions were summed and labeled supportive parenting; negative affect/harshness and intrusiveness were summed and labeled overbearing parenting; detachment was examined separately.

Overall, we found:

Both fathers and mothers engaged in high levels of supportive parenting with their young children and exhibited low levels of overbearing parenting and detachment.

Fathers and mothers with high school degrees and higher incomes were more likely to engage in supportive parenting than those without degrees or with less income.

Fathers' education and income predicted children's language and cognitive development, and fathers' education was associated with the quality of mother-child interactions.

Fathers' and mothers' supportive parenting each uniquely predicted their children's language and cognitive outcomes after taking their education and income into account.

Fathers' supportive parenting at the 24-month observation predicted greater supportiveness in mothers at the 36-month observation.

Overbearing parenting and detachment were not associated with children's outcomes.

This study shows that a supportive father can promote early cognitive and language development in young children as well as affect mothers' supportive parenting. Fathers who are positively involved in their children's lives may help their children avoid the declines in cognitive performance often seen in children living in poverty. These findings demonstrate the importance of designing programs and policies that encourage positive father involvement.


Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 6, Fathers and Mothers at Play with their 2- and 3-Year-Olds: Contributions to Language and Cognitive Development by C.S. Tamis-LeMonda (New York University), J.D. Shannon, N.J. Cabrera and M.E. Lamb. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

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