June 15, 2011

A Tale of Two Fathers

More Are Active, but More Are Absent

Chapter 2. Attitudes About Fatherhood

Among fathers, only a small minority (14%) agrees or strongly agrees with the statement that people can’t be really happy unless they have children. Men with no children are less likely than fathers to think that people can’t be really happy unless they have children—some 8% agree or strongly agree with that statement, while 91% disagree or strongly disagree.

Hispanic fathers are more likely to agree that people can’t be really happy unless they have children—30% believe that. That is much higher than the 8% of white and black fathers who report similar attitudes. Education and income are also linked to attitudes on this question among fathers. While 22% of fathers with less than a high school diploma agree with the statement, only 12% of fathers with more education have the same attitude. And while 24% of fathers with annual family incomes below $30,000 agree that people can’t be happy unless they have children, this share drops to 14% for fathers with incomes of $30,000 to $49,999, and 9% for fathers with incomes of $50,000 or more.

Among childless men Hispanics are more likely than whites to agree or strongly agree that people can’t be really happy unless they have children. Some 19% of childless Hispanic men have this attitude, compared with 4% of whites. And again, family income is associated with this attitude. While 12% of childless men with annual incomes below $30,000 agree or strongly agree with the statement, only 6% of those earning $50,000 or more feel that people can’t be really happy unless they have children.

While few think that parenthood is crucial to happiness, the vast majority of all men, whether fathers or childless, believe that the rewards of being a parent are worth it despite the costs and the work that goes into it. Among fathers, 70% strongly agree and 27% agree. The majority of non-fathers also concur with the statement, but only 40% strongly agree, while 53% agree.

Public Opinion Favors Fathers in the Home

In spite of the fact that more children are now growing up in homes without a father, the public holds fast to the ideal that having a father in the home is essential for children. According to a new Pew Research survey, seven-in-ten respondents (69%) tend to agree that a child needs a father in the home to grow up happily. Only 27% disagree with this statement, and 4% are not sure. Survey respondents were also asked how important it is to have a mother in the home. The share agreeing that a child needs a mother in the home was only slightly higher—74%.11

Men, whether they are fathers or not, are much more likely than women to say a child needs a father in the home. Fully 77% of men (including 79% of fathers with children younger than 18) agree that a child needs a father at home to grow up happily. Only 61% of women (including 60% of mothers with children younger than 18) agree.

When it comes to the importance of having a mom in the home, men and women are in closer agreement. Roughly eight-in-ten men (79%) and 71% of women agree that a child needs a mother in the home to grow up happily.

While valuing the role that fathers play in their children’s lives, most Americans believe being a father has become more difficult in recent decades. When asked whether the job of being a father is easier, more difficult or about the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago, 57% say it is more difficult now. Only 9% say it is becoming easier to be a dad, and 32% say the job is about the same as it was a generation ago. Fathers are more likely than mothers to say fatherhood is harder these days: 63% say being a dad is more difficult today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Less than half of mothers (48%) agree.

Time use data indicate that married fathers are spending much more time these days caring for their children than fathers did a generation ago. However, the public is not convinced that all fathers have taken on a more prominent role in the children’s lives. When asked whether fathers today generally play a greater role or a lesser role in raising their children compared with fathers 20 or 30 years ago, 46% say fathers play a greater role now while an equal share (45%) say today’s fathers play a lesser role. Only 3% say there has been no change.

Among men, fathers with children younger than 18 are more likely than other men to say dads have taken on a greater role in recent decades (52% vs. 39%).

When asked specifically about time spent with children, the public is not convinced that today’s fathers are putting in more time with their kids. Just over one-third (36%) say that compared with fathers 20 or 30 years ago, today’s dads are spending more time with their children (14% say they’re spending a lot more time, 22% say somewhat more time). More than four-in-ten (43%) say today’s dads are spending less time with their children (24% somewhat less, 19% a lot less). And 17% say fathers are spending about the same amount of time with their children now as they did a generation ago.

Mothers are more likely than fathers to say that today’s dads are more engaged with their children. Among mothers with children 17 or younger, 49% say fathers today spend more time with their children than fathers did 20 or 30 years ago. Only 36% of dads agree.

Overall, today’s fathers get mixed grades for the job they are doing as parents. Only 24% of all adults say fathers are doing a better job than their own fathers did. One-third (34%) say they are doing a worse job. And 40% say they are doing their job about as well as dads did a generation ago. Fathers’ assessments of the job they are doing raising their own children are much more positive. Nearly half (47%) say they are doing a better job than their own father did. Only 3% say they are doing a worse job, and 47% say they are about the same as their own dads.

  1. In the survey questionnaire, the two categories—father and mother—were rotated so that half of the sample was asked about fathers first and the other half of the sample was asked about mothers first.