Five Myths about Fathers, Debunked

30 Sep 2018

Sociologist Brad Wilcox argues that data do not support much of the “received wisdom” the media perpetuates about fathers. He takes on the following five myths:

1. The "Mr. Mom" Surge

Open a newspaper or turn on a TV in the week leading up to Father’s Day and you are bound to confront a story on stay-at-home dads. I have nothing against stay-at-home dads, but they still make up a small share of American fathers.

Dads now represent slightly more than 5% of all stay-at-home parents, which means the vast majority of stay-at-home parents are still moms, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. For instance, in 2017, 267,000 of America’s 21 million married fathers with children under 15 were at home caring for their children. By contrast, about 23 percent (4.96 million) of those families had a stay-at-home mom (as of 2017).

The focus on Mr. Mom obscures another important reality. In most American families headed by two parents today, fathers still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning, even though mothers play a larger role in breadwinning than they used to. Specifically, married fathers earn about two-thirds of the income in married families with children at home.

Providership is important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds of educational success, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed later in life. Thus, the very real material contribution that the average American dad makes to his family can be obscured by stories that focus on that still relatively exotic breed, the stay-at-home dad.

2. Women Want Everything 50-50

Another prevailing media myth is that contemporary women are looking for fathers who will split their time evenly between work and family life. It may be true for the average journalist or academic, but it is not true for the average American married mom.

Most married mothers nowadays do want their husbands to do their fair share of housework and childcare. But they do not define fairness in terms of a 50-50 balancing act where fathers and mothers do exactly the same thing at home and work. Instead, contemporary mothers generally take into account their husbands’ work outside the home when they assess the fairness of the division of labor inside the home.

Moreover, many women who are married with children are happy to have their husbands do a bit more of the breadwinning and do not wish to work full-time. For instance, a Pew Research Center study found that only 23% of married mothers with children under 18 wanted to work full-time; by contrast, 53% preferred part-time work and 23% preferred to be at home full-time.

3. Cohabiting Dads Are Just the Same as Married Dads

With the rise of cohabitation over the last 40 years, a large minority of American children will spend some time in a household headed by a cohabiting couple. Experts now estimate that more than 40% of American children will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either because they are born into such a household or because one of their parents cohabits after a breakup. Faced with this reality, many journalists, scholars, and advocates are tempted to minimize the differences between married and cohabiting fathers and families.

But the reality is that, on average, cohabiting fathers do not compare with married fathers. As Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland and Kermyt Anderson of the University of Oklahoma found in study from a few years ago, married fathers are significantly more involved and affectionate with their children than are cohabiting fathers. In fact, from their research, they conclude “that marriage per se confers the advantage in terms of father involvement above and beyond the characteristics of the fathers themselves.”

Married fathers are also much more likely than their cohabiting peers to stick around. The 2017 World Family Map found that children born to cohabiting couples are about twice as likely to experience a parental breakup by age 12 as children born to married parents. Another study by Wendy Manning at Bowling Green State and Pamela Smock at the University of Michigan found that 50% of children born to cohabiting parents saw their parents break up by age five; by comparison, only 15% of children born to married parents saw their parents’ divorce by age five.

This is because, for men, marriage and fatherhood are a “package deal,” as sociologists Frank Frustenberg and Andrew Cherlin observed a number of years ago. By force of law and custom, marriage binds men to their families and gives them a recognizable role to play in the lives of their children. Try as they might, unmarried men find it more difficult to be a consistent and positive force in the lives of their children.

4. The Kids Are Alright

Every couple of years, some journalist seeks to revive the myth of the so-called "good divorce." Sandra Tsing Loh did this awhile back in The Atlantic. Loh claimed that her children appeared to be doing just fine. Her two school-age girls appeared to be “unfazed” and “relatively content” in the midst of their parents’ divorce.

The best social science presents a rather different picture than the rosy one Loh sought to paint. According to research by Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Paul Amato of Penn State, girls whose parents’ divorce are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, to become pregnant as teenagers, and to suffer from psychological problems such as depression and thoughts of suicide. New research indicates they are also less likely, as they move into adulthood, to attend and graduate from graduate school. Girls whose parents’ divorce are also much more likely to divorce later in life.

We are also increasing hearing the voices of adult children of divorce, who tell us that the loss of their parents’ marriages brings lifelong, though often hidden, suffering. Moreover, studies indicate that children experience the most harm when their parents’ divorce after living together in a low-conflict marriage for many years. Why? These divorces come as the most surprising ones to children who thought that their parents had a good-enough marriage.

Though Loh managed to find for her Atlantic piece a bunch of well-educated friends who are also entertaining thoughts of divorce, she is (fortunately) in increasingly rare company. The work of sociologist Steven Martin indicates that since 1980, college-educated Americans have grown less tolerant of divorce, and the divorce rate among this cohort has fallen off sharply.

5. Dads Are Dispensable

The final myth propagated by some journalists in connection with fatherhood these days is the myth of the dispensable father. This myth holds that fathers do not play a central role in children’s lives, but fails to take into account the now-vast social scientific literature showing that children typically do better in an intact, married families with their fathers than they do in families headed by single mothers.

It also overlooks the growing body of research indicating that fathers bring distinctive talents to the parenting enterprise. The work of psychologist Ross Parke, for instance, indicates that fathers are more likely than mothers to engage their children in vigorous physical play (e.g., roughhousing), to challenge their children—including their daughters—to embrace life’s challenges, and to be firm disciplinarians.

Not surprisingly, children benefit physically, mentally, and emotionally from being exposed to the distinctive paternal style. Sociologist David Eggebeen has shown, for instance, that teenagers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and delinquency when they have involved and affectionate fathers, even after controlling for the quality of their relationship with their mother. In his words, “What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and fathers both make vital contributions to adolescent well-being.”

This is not to say that all journalists get it wrong when it comes to making sense of contemporary fatherhood and family life. For instance, Abigail Shrier had a recent piece at the Wall Street Journal arguing in favor of “dad-style” parenting. And a few years back in the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenberger had a great article discussing the ways in which mothers serve as gatekeepers for fathers to their children; she also encourages mothers to allow fathers to engage children with their own distinctive style of parenting. Likewise, Charlotte Hilton Anderson wrote a piece for Redbook last year that highlights how involved and affectionate fathers can play a crucial role in steering their daughters away from a host of unhealthy behaviors, ranging from eating disorders to early sexual activity. In fact, it turns out that dads are more important than moms in protecting their teenage daughters from early sex (for more on how dads positively impact their daughters into adulthood, read  IFS article).

This is an excerpted version of an opinion article by W. Bradford Wilcox that originally appeared in