Father's Day is just around the corner, and what better way to pay homage to dad than by recognizing the impact fathers can have on their children's academic outcomes? Yes, all fathers–even those who are no longer in the home.
Even though fathers have slowly increased their involvement in child care over the years, perceptions of fathers as nurturers are less common. Fathers who don’t live in the same house as their children can have an even worse reputation, as identified in my research. And yet, research shows that fathers are essential to their children’s future academic success.
More involved fathers tend to have children who are psychologically, cognitively, and physically healthier. In terms of academics, for example, fathers who take active roles in reading with and to their children, support their academic outcomes, and are involved with their schools more often have children who graduate high school, achieve good grades, and have financial stability as adults.
There can be differences in how parents' behavior relates to the academic outcomes of their children. For example, a study based on a high-risk sample assessed whether or not fathers’ “mean lengths of utterance” (the number of words spoken) while reading a picture-book to their preschool-aged children were associated to their academic outcomes. Children with fathers who spoke more words during their reading sessions grew up to have stronger vocabulary and math skills compared to peers whose fathers spoke less. In contrast, mothers’ mean length of utterance during the same task was only predictive of their children’s future mastery of math word problems.
Fathers’ Academic Involvement
Although the link between fathers’ academic involvement and children’s academic success has been well established, fathering takes place in diverse contexts. Neighborhoods, race and ethnicity, and the marital status of fathers are some examples of these contexts.
As children grow and develop, parents will have less of an impact due to growing peer influences. While paternal involvement has generally been found to be most critical for children’s reading and math skills when they’re young, it continues to be important through young adulthood. For example, living in high-risk neighborhoods can often lead to poor academic outcomes in adolescents. In other words, high-crime, economically disadvantaged, and stressed communities often lead to adolescents dropping out of school, engaging in crime, and having lowered future financial health. Fathers can disrupt negative community impacts by engaging in learning activities with teens, asking questions about school, and helping with homework.
Father academic involvement tends to make more of a difference for the educational outcomes of children of color. Mexican-American students benefit from fathers with higher levels of education because they are more likely to help with homework and discuss the importance of education.
African-American fathers who have high academic expectations for their children often have children who are academically successful. This benefit can exist whether they share the same residence with their children or not. In a qualitative study by Geoffrey Greif and colleagues, one father said, "We always insisted on advanced placement and told the teachers to get back to us if there was a problem.”
Divorced fathers, especially those who don't share a residence with their children more than 50 percent of the time, can find it challenging to remain involved in their children's academic development. Many schools assume mothers are the primary and sole parent to contact regarding schooling. In my qualitative research with divorced fathers, it was often noted that schools tend not to send information to both households or to inform nonresidential fathers of their children's academic standing. One father told me, "My son's school never calls me," and others often felt unaware of school events.
But nonresidential fathers with some school involvement have children who are less likely to repeat a grade and be suspended, and more likely to have higher grades. Higher conflict between former spouses does not help, though: Fathers with conflictual former-spouse relationships often said they would not know about parent-teacher meetings, school activities, and extracurricular performances until they had passed.
As children got old enough, some fathers use email and texting to help. One father texted his daughter every day because "it's just like you're there." This way, he learned the dates of important tests, and how she did on them, and at swim meets. Another father with younger children said his former spouse let him know about a play his son was in "30 minutes before it started. Thankfully I have a flexible job and could make it."
There is no doubt that fathers who support and are involved in their children's academic lives benefit their children tremendously. Some suggest that these benefits extend beyond academics to other areas of their children's lives because kids feel good when dads are invested. Fathers, as you celebrate your day, take a minute to reflect on your involvement in your children's academics, consider any changes you want to make, and congratulate yourself on helping your children be successful.