June 15, 2000
The NICHD Study of Early Child Care has found that fathers who had high levels of self esteem were more involved in caring for their children than were fathers with lower self esteem. The study appears in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. The researchers also found that fathers were more involved in caregiving when they worked fewer hours than did other fathers and when their children's mothers worked more hours than did other children's mothers.
The study was conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Early Child Care Research Network. In addition, among the most sensitive to their children were fathers who had less traditional child-rearing beliefs, were older, and reported greater marital intimacy.
In the study, fathers in various locations throughout the country whose families participated in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care were interviewed about their caregiving responsibilities. Interviews took place when the children were six, 15, 24, and 36 months of age. Some of the fathers were also videotaped as they played with their children at six and 36 months. The authors examined responsibilities for caregiving activities such as diapering and feeding and observed the father's sensitivity during father-child interaction, which involved children and fathers playing with toys and other objects while being videotaped.
Results from the study showed that fathers increased their engagement in caregiving activities between six and 15 months, and they spent more time in caregiving activities with sons than with daughters. Fathers with more positive personality attributes were also more likely to spend more time caring for their children than were fathers who had fewer positive personality attributes. Such positive attributes included higher self-esteem, lower levels of depression and hostility, and better psychological adjustment. Neither birth order nor the child's temperament was associated with the father's caregiving reponsibilities. Fathers who were younger, worked fewer hours and whose incomes constituted a smaller percentage of total family income spent more time in caregiving activities than did fathers who worked more hours and who contributed a higher percentage of family income. Also, mothers who reported higher levels of marital intimacy had partners who engaged in more caregiving activities.
Fathers also appeared more sensitive to their firstborns than they were to later borns. Older fathers and fathers who endorsed less traditional child-rearing beliefs were rated as more sensitive.
Contrary to what the authors had suspected, it did not appear that the factors associated with fathers' involvement were fundamentally altered by employment of the mother. At the same time, the study found that when mothers did not work or worked only part-time, fathers were more likely to participate in caring for their children if they had less traditional child-rearing philosophies. In households in which mothers worked full-time, fathers were involved in caregiving activities regardless of their child-rearing beliefs. The researchers wrote that the finding "suggests that mothers' full-time employment creates demands on family life that necessitate fathers' assuming more caregiving responsibilities regardless of their underlying beliefs."
The authors suggested that educational programs for new fathers that target their child-rearing beliefs by focusing on their children's needs and capacities might be beneficial.
The NICHD Study of Early Child Care enrolled just over 1,300 children at birth at 10 research sites throughout the United States. Children participating in the study were placed in a variety of child care arrangements, ranging from the most informal (care with relatives) to the most formal (center care). The study is being conducted by investigators at the NICHD and at 14 universities around the country. The study was not designed to be nationally representative, but the average income of study families was similar to the average national household income and the percentage of ethnic minorities participating in the study was similar to the percentage of minorities in the nation as a whole.