How does the contemporary American dad practice parenting?
Matthew Weinshenker, Ph.D., wants to know.
According to Weinshenker, assistant professor of sociology (and a father of two), measuring the nuances of male parenting styles can tell us a lot. His recent study, “Evening Dads, Couch Potatoes and Others,” sheds some light on those styles.
“Research has been very good at documenting the diversity of fathers in the contemporary United States,” he said. “But we really don’t know enough about fatherhood as it is practiced on a day-to-day level.”
Weinshenker’s study relied on data from a supplement to the annual Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal look at economic, health and social behavior of the contemporary American family.
Looking at recent nationwide data collected on 698 families with two opposite-sex parents and children aged 5-11 years, Weinshenker developed six categories of father-child interaction. They include:
• Play/Companionship. This consisted of playing sports and computer games as well as doing hobbies and similar activities.
• Teaching/Achievement-Related. This category included helping with homework, reading to a child and other lesson-based activities.
• Household Activities. This referred to fathers who do household chores with their kids, such as cleaning or running errands.
• Social Activities. The most diverse category, this included attending religious activities, going to meetings or parties, or visiting family and friends.
• Eating Meals.
• Watching Television.
Some 90 percent of all father-child engagement reported in the study fell into these categories, Weinshenker said.
He applied a cluster analysis approach—often used by marketers to group people who use a particular product—to group the fathers based on the extent to which they participated in each activity.
He identified and named six different types of fathers who shared similar amounts of time and the same activity categories. They are:
• The Uninvolved Dad—30 percent of participating fathers. “Not shockingly, this is the largest group,” Weinshenker said. He described the group as having a comparatively high number of stepfathers and the lowest expression of affection for their children. These fathers reported spending an average of less than 40 minutes a day with their children. This group was also one in which men were likely to be unemployed or to be employed part-time.
“There is research going back to the Depression documenting that unemployed men find it difficult to spend time with their children,” Weinshenker said. “Providing money for the family is such an important cultural construct of being a father in the United States that many men who can’t do that feel they have nothing to contribute. They become withdrawn or even hostile,” he said.
• The Evening Dad—21 percent of participating fathers. According to Weinshenker, this group reported regularly having meals with their family and engaging in play/companionship activities, such as reading, playing games together or just horsing around. They were also most likely to help with homework. Economically, Weinshenker descried them as “hardworking middle-class fathers.” They averaged approximately two hours a day with their children.
• The Couch Potato Dad—14 percent of participating fathers. Even though they are as likely as “uninvolved” fathers to be unemployed, Couch Potato Dads spend a lot of time watching television with their children. That activity, according to the research, proved to have some potential value on child development.
“In the areas of expressing affection and limit-setting, Couch Potato fathers show relatively healthy percentages,” said Weinshenker, whose data also showed that they spent an average of three hours a day with their kids. “There is controversy in social scientific literature as to whether television is good for families, but if we can believe the data, there are many activities that allow fathers to convey to their children that they care about them. Television might not be the most developmentally valuable activity, but it can build a parent-child relationship.”
• The Social Activity Dad—13 percent of participating fathers. Even though the social activity group was rather small, said Weinshenker, these men reported a high degree of religious activity and said that religion was important in their lives. These fathers averaged 3.5 hours daily with their children, but were the lowest in reporting expressions of affection toward their children.
“Without further research, I hesitate to draw a firm conclusion about this group and expression of affection,” said Weinshenker, noting that much of the father-child time together was spent out of the home, perhaps, in a social environment not conducive to expressing affection.
• The Homebody Dad—13 percent of participating fathers. This group reported large amounts of time eating together and doing household activities with their children. Not high earners, the group consisted of a disproportionate number of minorities and averaged 3.5 hours a day with their children.
• The Companion Dad—Spending close to five hours a day with their children, these dads were high in all categories but particularly in the “play/companionship” category. According to Weinshenker, this group was more likely to have flexible work schedules (such as those of professors) and to be economically well off. They also reported the highest levels of expressing affection.
Weinshenker cautioned that his study is meant to be a preliminary analysis of a larger, perhaps longitudinal work on male parenting habits and child development—one that he would like to do.
“This typological approach to fathers could reveal some surprises about what makes successful parenting,” Weinshenker said. “Just about any way of spending time with children seems to promote expressing affection, being involved with monitoring their behavior, and conveying that there are limits.
“And that,” he said, “is a good thing.”