The Role of a Father in the Family: Today & in the Past

The duties of a dad are changing and involvement is key.

Updated May 19, 2023
Father playing with daughter

The role of a father in the family has an incredibly important impact on a child's psychological and physical wellbeing. When a child has a healthy relationship with a father figure, they tend to have improved psychological health, as well as better quality relationships throughout their life. We break down the father role and how it has changed in very recent years.

The Role of a Father in the Family

Father figures can play many roles within the family system. Keep in mind that the term father does not solely apply to biological relationships, nor does it only apply to a husband and wife relationship.

Same-sex couples, transgender men who are parents, and single fathers provide just as meaningful parent-child relationships as families with a husband and wife. There is no one type of family where a child recieves the healthiest father-child relationship.

Father figures:

  • May not be biologically related to the child or children they care for
  • May be a step-parent
  • May have adopted a child or children
  • May not be legally responsible for the children they look after

Regardless of what the family looks like, the most important factor is the quality of the parent-child relationship.

What Is the Role of a Father in Families Today?

Unlike years past, many fathers today are equally involved in both the parenting of the children and the upkeep of the household. This not only sets a solid example for the children, but it also improves the spousal relationship.

In fact, a study of married men and women who had just had their first child showed that when a father took the time to contribute to these tasks, there was an overall decrease in aggravation for both partners, even when their baby was fussy. Within the family, fathers can take on multiple roles, which may include:

  • Financial contributors
  • Supportive partners
  • Loving parents
  • Stay-at-home parents
  • Healthy co-parents, even after a breakup or divorce
Father helping his son with schoolwork

Why Having a Father Is Important

A father figure can significantly influence the life and wellbeing of a child. In families where the father figure is present, the father serves as one of the first role models and relationships the child will encounter. Children are extremely sensitive and observant beings and internalize relational experiences.

These early interactions with their father serve as a blueprint for what a relationship looks like and impacts both the father-son relationship and the father-daughter relationship. This means that unhealthy relationships with a father figure can significantly impact not only the child's psychological wellbeing, but their unconscious relational choices when they become adults.

  • If a child has a healthy relationship with their father, they tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and confidence, and they develop more stable relationships with other men in their adulthood.
  • If a child has an unhealthy relationship with their father, they may experience more psychological distress and struggle with forming healthy relationships with as they become adults.

Keep in mind that it is very difficult to alter the internalized relational blueprint that forms when children are quite young. While it is possible to change this foundation, it often takes high levels of insight, as well as significant psychotherapeutic interventions to shift these deep-rooted, and often unconscious, mental pathways.

The Changing Role of the Modern Day Father

It has only been in the past several decades that the idea of the "involved father" has taken shape. While historically, men's identities were heavily tied to their careers, dads continue to take a more active parenting role in recent years. According to Pew Research Center statistics on American fathers (2016):

  • 7% of dads reported being stay-at-home fathers, and of those 7%, 24% cite their primary reason for this choice was to take care of their child or children.
  • 49% of men felt pressure to be an involved father.
  • 49% of adults reported they felt men face more pressure returning to work after they've welcomed a child into their family.

How the Pandemic Has Changed the Father Role for the Better

When the pandemic hit in 2020, we were all forced to retreat to the safety of our homes while health experts figured out how to handle this medical crisis. During this time of solitude, fathers had the unique opportunity to spend more quality time with their kids while working from home.

Researchers at Harvard University have found that "almost 70% of fathers across race, class, educational attainment, and political affiliation in the United States [felt] closer to their children during the coronavirus pandemic." The studies also found that since the start of the pandemic, more than half of American fathers:

  • Appreciate their children more
  • Are more aware of their children's feelings
  • Engage more with their children in both daily activities and conversations

Interestingly enough, Pew Research has also found that as of October 2020, 46% of fathers feel as if they spend the right amount of time with their kids (only 36% of fathers felt this way in 2017). Additionally, there has been a 15% decrease in the number of fathers who believe they spend too little time with their kids (down from 63% in 2017).

How the Pandemic Changed the Way Fathers View Work

The pandemic also brought more flexible work conditions. While most businesses have gone back to the status quo, many fathers have changed their views of their old roles. The Hamilton Project reports that as of September 2021:

  • A quarter of fathers sought to reduce the hours they work
  • Only 26% intended to go back to how they worked in pre-pandemic days
  • Many wanted to pursue less demanding positions

This restructuring of the way fathers think about their careers and the value they see in achieving a work-life balance is a big step in helping families maintain healthy relationships.

Need to Know

The pandemic changed how many businesses function. New and experienced fathers who want to be more involved in their kid's lives can benefit from this, so take the time to research opportunities that will give you the balance you need to foster a better life for yourself and your family.

Important Responsibilities of a Father

In terms of healthy parenting, the duties of a dad may include:

  • Modeling healthy relational behavior with your other caregiver (if applicable), and other adults
  • Being kind, nurturing, and spending time to bond with your child without distractions
  • Expressing love in healthy ways
  • Taking good care of yourself both physically and mentally and modeling appropriate behavior when help is needed
  • Being understanding and forgiving
  • Not imposing or projecting your notions onto your child
  • Giving your child the space to be themselves and allowing them to take the lead in certain situations
  • Offering acceptance and compassion
  • Teaching and modeling healthy communication skills, as well as appropriate conflict resolution skills
  • Setting appropriate boundaries and disciplining appropriately (no violence, no spanking, no yelling, no withholding affection, and no prolonged punishment)
Father with children on bus in city

What Is the Role of Father and Mother in a Family?

Keep in mind that a family with a mother and father is not the only type of family where a father figure can be involved in healthy ways; parents today tend to share the responsibility of child rearing.

Parental Roles Vary Based in Individual Families

In terms of specific roles, these will vary greatly depending on each unique family's needs. However, in healthy families, ideally both parents are flexible and are able to take on the same roles, while supporting each other as parents and partners. The roles that parents play today in individual families can look very different from family to family - and that's ok. No one family needs to operate just like another.

What Is the Responsibility of Parents?

Depending on the family unit, mothers and fathers may trade off in terms of responsibilities, or come up with their own balanced way of splitting the tasks of the household. When it comes to parenting, ideally both the mother and father have healthy relationships with their child or children and are equally involved in child rearing.

The Importance of a Father

A father plays a significant role in molding their child and promoting good mental and physical health. Regardless of how the father figure is connected to the child or which name for dad the children call this parent by, the most important aspect of the parent-child relationship is the quality of the connection, and not whether the child and father are blood relatives. Thus, the most important father role is to be present in a positive way.

The Role of a Father in the Family: Today & in the Past