Father playing with son
A new study examined the frequency of a father's engagement with their child and the associations between such engagement and the child's behavior.

In low-income families, fathers who are engaged in his children’s lives can help to improve their mental health and behavior, according to a Rutgers University–New Brunswick study published in the journal Social Service Review.

The researchers found that adolescents in low-income families whose fathers are more frequently engaged in feeding, reading, playing and other activities and who provide necessities such as clothes and food throughout their childhood have fewer behavioral and emotional problems -- reducing a significant gap between poor families and those with higher socioeconomic status.

“On average, children in lower socioeconomic status families tend to have more behavior problems and their fathers have lower levels of overall involvement than those in higher socioeconomic status families,” said lead author Lenna Nepomnyaschy, an associate professor at Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s School of Social Work and a core faculty member at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research.

The researchers analyzed data on the long-term behavior of 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000. They focused on the frequency of their fathers’ engagement, from ages 5 to 15, through feeding, playing, reading and helping with homework, and providing noncash items such as clothes, toys, food and other necessities. They reviewed the associations between such engagement and the children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors, including crying, worrying, fighting, bullying and skipping school.

Lenna Nepomnyaschy
Lenna Nepomnyaschy, lead author of the study, is an associate professor at the School of Social Work.

According to Nepomnyaschy, fathers with lower education, lower skilled jobs and lower wages may find it difficult to engage in their children’s lives due to social and economic changes over the last several decades. These changes have resulted in the loss of manufacturing jobs, a decline in union power and criminal justice policies linked to mass incarceration, particularly among men of color. 

The researchers urged policymakers, scholars and the public to consider wage, employment and criminal justice policies that increase the opportunity for men to engage with their children to improve their well-being. 

The study was co-authored by researchers from Boston University, Cornell University and the University of Buffalo and was part of a larger project funded by a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.