The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children
Annual statistical report 2011

3 Fathers' involvement in children's personal care activities

Jennifer Baxter, Australian Institute of Family Studies

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The roles that fathers play in Australian families are multifaceted, with many fathers being the main income earners, but also being involved in the day-to-day activities of raising children (Baxter & Smart, 2010). While, on average, fathers spend less time than mothers with children and are less involved in tasks associated with the care of children, they nevertheless often have some level of engagement in these activities. This chapter uses data from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) to take a closer look at the degree to which fathers are involved with their children's personal care activities and provide insights into this aspect of father involvement.

Previous analyses of fathers' participation in child care tasks have shown that fathers typically spend less time with children than do mothers (Craig & Mullan, 2010), and also the nature of child care time for fathers and mothers tends to be quite different (Craig, 2006). In particular, mothers usually do more of the tasks associated with the care of children, while fathers' time with children is more likely to involve playing or talking with children. Differences between mothers and fathers in the time they spend in child care tasks are not surprising given their differences in engagement in paid work, with mothers often working part-time hours or remaining out of paid work while their children are very young. Fathers, on the other hand, are usually in full-time employment when they have young children (Baxter, Gray, Alexander, Strazdins, & Bittman, 2007). This results in mothers and fathers often spending very different amounts of time with children in total, and also means that fathers spend a relatively small amount of time alone with children (Baxter & Smart, 2010; Craig, 2006; Wilson & Prior, 2010). This is likely to have implications for parents' involvement in particular child care tasks.

An important factor to consider when examining the involvement by fathers (or mothers) in child care tasks concerns the age of the children (Wang & Bianchi, 2009). In examining what types of child care tasks are done by parents, it is important to take into account that children's needs for assistance with personal care will vary considerably as they grow, such that once they are school-aged, fairly minimal assistance by parents may be required. As such, as children grow, parents' time spent in child care may shift from task-oriented personal care to other tasks, such as helping children with homework or driving them to activities. In this chapter, the elements of child care examined include fathers' involvement in tasks such as helping children bathe and shower, helping them get ready for bed, and helping them get dressed in the morning. Differences in involvement according to the age of children are examined throughout the analyses.

These analyses extend some of the earlier work by Baxter and Smart (2010), who examined how fathers in couple families with young children contribute to family life. This chapter focuses on illustrating how fathers' involvement in personal care activities varies across fathers and families with different characteristics, and across children's age groups. Biological and step-fathers are included in the analyses. The analyses also explore how fathers' involvement in children's personal care is linked with other measures of family wellbeing. This includes looking at mothers' reports of one aspect of the co-parental relationship - how much of a resource or support fathers are to mothers in raising children - and also at the degree of fathers' parental warmth. It is expected that relationships between these measures will be found, as involvement in personal care activities by fathers is likely to provide opportunities to develop relationships with children. Further, sharing in tasks that are a central part of raising children is expected to be related to the quality of the co-parental relationship (Van Egeren & Hawkins, 2004).

The analyses use a set of items that were included in the self-completion instruments of Waves 2 and 3 of LSAC (but were not included in Wave 1). At each wave, the focus was on fathers living in couple families and their involvement with the LSAC study child. The activities that fathers were asked about are shown in Box 1. As children's needs for assistance with personal care change as they grow, some activities were not relevant to ask about at particular ages. At age 8-9 years, for example, the only personal care activity asked about was fathers' involvement in helping children brush their teeth. As it was difficult to use just this one activity to understand fathers' involvement at this age, these data were not used and the analyses were limited to include children aged 2-3 years through to 6-7 years (i.e., Waves 2 and 3 for the B cohort, and Wave 2 for the K cohort).

Box 1: Questions about involvement in personal care activities

In the Waves 2 and 3 self-complete questionnaires, mothers and fathers reported separately on the extent to which they were involved in a range of different child care tasks. Some items were not asked at both waves, and for this analysis some were combined where they represented similar activities but the wording of the item differed slightly (see below).

Parents were asked: "In the past month how often did you …":

  • assist this child with eating? (B cohort, Wave 2)
  • change this child's nappies or help this child use the toilet? (B cohort, Wave 2)
  • get this child ready for bed or put him/her to bed? (B cohort, Waves 2 and 3; K cohort, Wave 2)
  • give this child a bath or shower? (B cohort, Waves 2 and 3; K cohort, Wave 2)
  • help this child get dressed? (B cohort, Wave 2) / help this child get ready for school/preschool/child care? (B cohort, Wave 3) / help get this child ready for school? (K cohort, Wave 2)
  • help this child brush his/her teeth? (B cohort, Waves 2 and 3; K cohort, Wave 2) / supervise this child brush his/her teeth? (K cohort, Wave 3)

The five response categories were: once a day or more, a few times a week, a few times a month, rarely, and not at all.

Because these data were sourced from the self-complete instrument, there was some non-response, mostly related to the non-completion of this survey. Among fathers of 2-3 year olds (B cohort, Wave 2), the response rate for these items was 76%, for fathers of 4-5 year olds (B cohort, Wave 3) the response rate was 71% and for fathers of 6-7 year olds (K cohort, Wave 2) the response rate was 78%. All descriptive statistics presented in this chapter are derived from the subsample of fathers who responded to questions about involvement in personal care.

3.1 Overall levels of involvement in personal care activities

Table 3.1 shows that a substantial proportion of fathers were involved in personal care activities every day or a few times a week. For example, 41% of fathers reported changing nappies or helping their 2-3 year old children with the toilet every day, and another 45% did so a few times a week. Around 30% of fathers helped their children get ready for bed every day, and 51-56% did so a few times a week.

As might be expected, Table 3.1 shows that children become more independent in most of these activities as they grow older, with declines evident in maternal as well as paternal involvement. In particular, children's growing independence in getting ready for child care, preschool or school is very evident when comparing the 2-3 year olds to the older children. Of these personal care activities, the frequency of parents' involvement in getting children ready for bed or putting them to bed changed the least.

Not surprisingly, mothers had much higher rates of daily involvement in children's personal care, but the gap between mothers' and fathers' involvement narrowed for most activities as children grew older. While fathers' involvement declined over the children's ages, mothers' involvement declined more so, although it remained at a higher rate of daily involvement when compared to fathers.

Table 3.1: Frequency of parents' involvement in personal care activities in the past month, fathers and mothers, B cohort Waves 2 and 3, and K cohort Wave 2
  Fathers' frequency of involvement Mothers' daily involvement
Once a day or more (%) A few times a week (%) A few times a month (%) Rarely or not at all (%) Total
Assist child with eating
2-3 years 31.1 41.9 11.7 15.4 100.0 55.1
Change child's nappies/help use toilet
2-3 years 40.9 44.7 7.4 6.9 100.0 88.8
Help child get dressed/ready for day
2-3 years 29.4 54.7 11.5 4.5 100.0 89.7
4-5 years 13.7 31.2 17.8 37.3 100.0 47.2
6-7 years 17.5 29.6 17.7 35.2 100.0 48.2
Get child ready for bed/put child to bed
2-3 years 27.6 55.9 10.7 5.8 100.0 79.2
4-5 years 30.9 52.2 10.7 6.2 100.0 72.0
6-7 years 28.2 50.7 11.6 9.5 100.0 62.2
Give child a bath or shower
2-3 years 18.8 55.7 15.6 10.0 100.0 64.4
4-5 years 17.0 51.4 18.1 13.5 100.0 61.2
6-7 years 11.4 44.2 18.0 26.2 100.0 40.4
Help/supervise child brushing teeth
2-3 years 21.1 46.5 14.9 17.4 100.0 69.8
4-5 years 20.3 46.2 15.1 18.4 100.0 59.0
6-7 years 13.1 36.0 15.3 35.7 100.0 32.7

Note: For fathers, sample sizes were 3,090 at 2-3 years, 2,732 at 4-5 years, and 2,904 at 6-7 years. For mothers, sample sizes were 3,198 at 2-3 years, 3,829 at 4-5 years, and 3,015 at 6-7 years. Numbers varied slightly on specific items due to small amounts of item non-response. Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding.

Source: Baxter & Smart (2010), Table 11

3.2 Fathers' characteristics and involvement in personal care

This section turns to the question of which fathers are more involved in their children's personal care, and whether factors related to this involvement are apparent across the different types of personal care, and across children's age groups. These analyses are informed by previous analyses in Baxter and Smart (2010) and by the vast international literature on fathering (e.g., Belsky, 1984; Lamb, 1997; Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, & Levine, 1987; Pleck, 1997).

Specifically, this section examines how father involvement varies with fathers' usual paid work hours (not employed, and working 1-34 hours, 35-44 hours, 45-54 hours, or 55 hours or more per week); mothers' usual paid work hours (not employed, and working 1-34 hours, or 35 hours or more per week); parents' marital status (married or cohabiting); fathers having children living elsewhere; and the sex of the child.1

These analyses explore fathers' responses regarding involvement in personal care by each of these variables. All these associations are examined by the age of the child. To assess whether there were associations between each characteristic (such as paid work hours) and involvement in each personal care activity, chi-square tests were conducted separately for each age group, with associations said to be statistically significant if p < .01. In Table 3.2, the results are summarised as either a + or −. A positive association (+) indicates a statistically significant greater involvement by fathers when mothers worked part-time or full-time hours (rather than being not employed), when fathers were married (rather than cohabiting), or when the child was a boy. The negative associations (−) in this table show when fathers were less involved, when fathers worked longer hours or had children living elsewhere. The findings are discussed, taking one characteristic at a time, in the sections below. Some, but not all, of these associations are illustrated graphically.

Table 3.2: Summary of associations between parental and child characteristics and fathers' personal care involvement, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2
Fathers' longer working hours Mothers' part-time or full-time work Parents married (vs cohabiting) Father has children living elsewhere Child is a boy
Assist child with eating
2-3 years +
Change child's nappies/help use toilet
2-3 years + +
Help child get dressed/ready for day
2-3 years + +
4-5 years +
6-7 years +
Get child ready for bed/put child to bed
2-3 years +
4-5 years +
6-7 years +
Give child a bath or shower
2-3 years + +
4-5 years + +
6-7 years + +
Help/supervise child brushing teeth
2-3 years + +
4-5 years +
6-7 years

Note: The + and − indicate a statistically significant difference in the reported frequency of father involvement for this variable, based on chi-square tests, if p < .01. The associations are said to be positive (+) or negative (−) based on the observed distribution of the data.

Paid work of fathers

Fathers' working hours are expected to be a significant factor in explaining involvement in some personal care activities. In particular, constraints on fathers' abilities to contribute to child care tasks may occur because such activities take place during times when fathers are likely to be absent from the home due to work commitments. This may be especially so for the tasks of assisting the child with eating or changing nappies/helping children with the toilet, which can occur at any time across the day. Among the tasks analysed here, most are likely to occur at the beginning or end of the day, but even so, long working hours by some fathers may mean that they are not available to be involved with these tasks. Using the time use diaries of 4-5 year olds, Baxter (2009, 2010) showed that longer working hours by fathers reduced the time they were with their children during the afternoons and evenings. Related to this, longer working hours reduced the time that fathers spent with children while children were undertaking personal care activities, which included the tasks examined here, as well as eating and drinking (Baxter, 2010). In the current analyses, the constraint of fathers' longer working hours in relation to evening activities may be more apparent for parents of younger children compared to older children. Preparing for and going to bed often occurs at an earlier time for younger children, at which time some fathers may not yet have returned home from work.

For fathers of children in the age groups 2-3 years through to 6-7 years, the distributions of usual paid working hours did not vary significantly by age of child, with an average across these data of 16% of fathers not employed or working part-time hours, 35% usually working 35-44 hours, 27% working 45-54 hours and 22% working 55 hours or more per week.

Overall, examination of fathers' involvement in children's personal care in relation to fathers' working hours shows that fathers who were not employed or were employed part-time tended to have the highest levels of involvement in their child's personal care activities, while those working the longest hours had the lowest levels of involvement. This was true for all of the personal care activities, although when explored separately by age of child, statistically significant differences were not always apparent at age 6-7 years, with an association for this age group only for helping to get their child dressed/ready for the day. One possible explanation for the lack of association at that age is that evening activities for these children may occur later in the day, when the majority of fathers are likely to be at home.

Figure 3.1 shows the involvement of fathers in helping their child get dressed/ready for their day, by fathers' working hours. The differences by age of child, seen previously in Table 3.1, are apparent. For each age group, the fewer hours that fathers worked, the more often they were involved in getting their child dressed/ready for the day, and the percentage of fathers who were rarely or never involved increased with the number of hours worked.

Figure 3.1: Fathers' involvement in getting children dressed/ready for the day, by fathers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2

Figure 3.1 Fathers' involvement in getting children dressed/ready for the day, by fathers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2 - as described in text.

If we look at another personal care activity - helping children get ready for bed (Figure 3.2) - fewer differences are apparent when comparing involvement by fathers' working hours. The greatest differences are evident for 2-3 and 4-5 year old children, when comparing fathers who work 55 hours or more to those who work fewer hours. Fathers had somewhat lower levels of daily involvement in helping their children get ready for bed when working the longer hours. Differences for 6-7 year old children were not statistically significant.

Figure 3.2: Fathers' involvement in getting children ready for bed, by fathers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2

Figure 3.2 Fathers' involvement in getting children ready for bed, by fathers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2 - as described in text.

Paid work of mothers

Mothers' time spent in paid employment may be important when examining fathers' involvement in personal care, in that fathers may need to take on more of such tasks when mothers spend longer in paid work. Indeed, it is possible that mothers can spend longer in paid work when fathers are more involved in child care. Previous analyses of LSAC time use diaries have shown that fathers spend more time with children when mothers are in paid work, especially full-time work, after taking into account fathers' own working hours and other characteristics (Baxter, 2009; Baxter & Smart, 2010). Also, Baxter (2010) showed that fathers of 4-5 year olds are more involved in children's personal care activities (including eating and drinking) when mothers work full-time hours, compared to when mothers are not employed.

While it is unclear whether associations between mothers' working hours and father involvement varied by age of children, it is worth noting that mothers' working hours themselves varied by age of children, as mothers were more likely to be out of employment and less likely to be employed full-time when they had 2-3 year olds (49% not employed, 40% employed part-time and 11% full-time), compared to when they had 4-5 year old children (42% not employed, 44% employed part-time and 14% full-time) or 6-7 year old children (39% not employed, 44% employed part-time and 18% full-time).

As summarised in Table 3.2, when mothers were in part-time or full-time paid work, fathers tended to report more frequent involvement in children's personal care activities, relative to when mothers were not in employment. Statistically significant associations were apparent for most activities at most ages. These analyses sometimes showed that fathers' involvement was particularly high when mothers worked full-time hours, but not when mothers worked part-time hours. This, for example, was the case for analyses of giving their child a bath or shower at ages 2-3 years and 4-5 years.

Figure 3.3 shows that fathers were most likely to help children get ready for the day if mothers worked full-time hours. Fathers had higher rates of daily involvement in this activity in these families, compared to families in which mothers were not employed or worked part-time hours. This was particularly apparent for the 4-5 year old children.

Figure 3.3: Fathers' involvement in getting children dressed/ready for the day, by mothers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2

Figure 3.3 Fathers' involvement in getting children dressed/ready for the day, by mothers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2 - as described in text.

Variation in fathers' involvement in getting children ready for bed in relation to mothers' working hours, was statistically significant at ages 4-5 and 6-7 years. However, as Figure 3.4 shows, the differences were quite small. Statistically significant differences were also apparent for helping children with their bath or shower, and helping them brush their teeth and, for 2-3 year olds, changing nappies/helping children with the toilet. In these cases, fathers were more involved when mothers worked full-time hours. The other personal care activity for 2-3 year olds - helping them eat - did not vary with mothers' work hours.

Figure 3.4: Fathers' involvement in getting children ready for bed, by mothers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2

Figure 3.4 Fathers' involvement in getting children ready for bed, by mothers' working hours, B cohort Waves 2 and 3 and K cohort Wave 2 - as described in text.

Parental relationships

Two characteristics of family form included here are parents' marital status (married or cohabiting) and an indicator of whether the father had children living elsewhere. These children living elsewhere may be children from previous relationships or older children who no longer live in the parental home. Most fathers were married (87% of fathers of 2-3 year olds, 88% of fathers of 4-5 year olds and 92% of fathers of 6-7 year olds) and most had only resident children (92% across all age groups).

Baxter and Smart (2010) found mixed results regarding fathering differences by marital status. They found married fathers had somewhat lower levels of involvement in children's personal care than cohabiting fathers. On other measures of fathering, however, it was married fathers who were more involved; for example, in the amount of time fathers spent with children across the day. One possible explanation for father involvement in children's personal care being lower in married couple families is that being married may indicate a more traditional approach to parenting when compared to cohabiting relationships, meaning that in married couples, mothers may take primary responsibility for child care tasks.

As shown in Table 3.2, when explored separately by age, statistically significant variation by marital status was rarely observed. Where it was observed, the differences related to married fathers being more frequently involved in assisting 2-3 year olds with eating, nappies/toilet and brushing teeth, and in getting 4-5 year olds ready for bed.

Having children living elsewhere was expected to diminish fathers' time for involvement with resident children's personal care, as the fathers' time might sometimes be directed to non-resident children. Baxter and Smart's (2010) analyses showed that this characteristic was quite often associated with lower levels of father involvement.

The summary in Table 3.2 shows that fathers with children living elsewhere were less likely to help their LSAC child with the typically evening activities of getting them ready for bed, helping with brushing teeth, or having a bath or shower. Differences between fathers with and without non-resident children are shown for a range of activities for 4-5 year old children in Figure 3.5.

Figure 3.5: Fathers' involvement in selected children's personal care activities, by whether father has non-resident children, B cohort Wave 3

Figure 3.5 Fathers' involvement in selected children's personal care activities, by whether father has non-resident children, B cohort Wave 3 - as described in text.

The other way in which parental relationships are commonly examined is by comparing biological fathers to step-fathers. In the multivariate analyses presented by Baxter and Smart (2010), biological fathers had higher levels of involvement in getting children ready for bed and helping with brushing teeth, or having a bath or shower. They did not differ significantly in their involvement in other personal care activities. There were too few step-fathers in the sample, however, to explore these relationships separately at different ages of children.

Boys and girls

As well as age, the other child characteristic examined here is the gender of the child. It was expected that when differences between involvement in care of children varied by gender, it would show fathers being more involved with boys than with girls (see, for example, Marsiglio, 1991; Wood & Repetti, 2004). However, the extent to which such differences would be apparent among the younger children was not clear, especially given that gender differences in father involvement are not always apparent (see, for example, Bronte-Tinkew, Scott, Horowitz, & Lilja, 2009; Laflamme, Pomerleau, & Malcuit, 2002). It seems plausible that gender differences might emerge as children grow and children themselves favour the involvement of one parent over the other in personal care tasks, or parents feel that such tasks might be better overseen by the parent of the same gender.

As shown in Table 3.2, there was some evidence of fathers being more involved in personal care activities for sons rather than daughters. However, the evidence of there being different associations with child gender across ages of children was quite mixed, with no evidence of overall greater involvement by fathers with sons as children grew older. The larger gender differences were apparent for the more personal of the activities: changing nappies/helping with the toilet and helping children with bathing or showering. These data are shown in Figure 3.6. At age 6-7 years it is especially apparent that fathers were more likely to be regularly (every day or a few times a week) involved in helping their boys with bathing or showering than they were with helping their girls.

Figure 3.6: Fathers' involvement in selected children's personal care activities, by child gender, B cohort Waves 2 and 3, K cohort Wave 2

Figure 3.6 Fathers' involvement in selected children's personal care activities, by child gender, B cohort Waves 2 and 3, K cohort Wave 2 - as described in text.

Variability in fathers' involvement

The above analyses have highlighted some of the differences in fathers' involvement in personal care activities. However, it is worth noting that despite these differences, the characteristics included here did not always explain a great deal of the variation in fathers' personal care involvement. That is, while statistically significant differences were apparent, this did not always mean very low or very high levels of involvement in one group relative to another. For example, looking at fathers' working hours, even among those working the longest hours, there remained sizable proportions who reported being frequently involved with activities such as getting children ready for the day. At the other end of the spectrum, fathers who were not in full-time jobs were much more likely than other fathers to have regular involvement in this activity, but nevertheless, some of these fathers were rarely or never involved. In the data on fathers' involvement in the personal care of boys versus girls, while there are some clear differences, still the vast majority of fathers were involved at least a few times a week with their daughters' personal care.

3.3 Fathers' involvement in personal care and the co-parental relationship

Fathers' involvement in their children's personal care, and thus sharing these tasks with the mother, could be seen to be one way in which fathers contribute to the co-parental relationship. In this section, the LSAC data for 4-5 year old children (B cohort, Wave 3) are used to test this, by looking for associations between the personal care involvement items and mothers' reports of fathers being a resource or support in raising their children. The restriction to this one age group is because this was the only time at which there was a question capturing views about co-parenting as well as questions about personal care involvement.

Of the sample in which fathers' personal care involvement data were available, 47% of mothers said that fathers were always a resource or support, 37% said fathers were often a resource or support and 14% said they were sometimes a resource or support. Only 3% gave responses of "rarely" or "never", and these are combined with "sometimes" in the analyses below.2

Figure 3.7 shows that fathers who were rated higher by their partner in terms of how often they were a resource or support in raising children more often had frequent involvement in children's personal care activities. For example, among those fathers who were reported by mothers to be less often a resource of support, 28% helped get their child dressed or ready for the day at least a few times a week, 51% helped with bathing or showering at least a few times a week, and 67% helped get their child ready for bed at least a few times a week. These figures were considerably higher, at 52%, 74% and 86% respectively, for fathers who were rated as always being a resource or support.

Figure 3.7: Fathers' involvement in children's personal care, by mothers' ratings of fathers as a resource or support, B cohort Wave 3

Figure 3.7 Fathers' involvement in children's personal care, by mothers' ratings of fathers as a resource or support, B cohort Wave 3 - as described in text.

However, it is interesting to note that involvement in personal care does not always guarantee a high rating of being a resource or support; just as infrequent involvement does not always guarantee a low rating. Clearly, providing input to children's personal care is just one dimension of the co-parental relationship.

3.4 Fathers' involvement in personal care and parenting

For fathers, being involved in the personal care of children may provide opportunities to develop a close relationship, or it may follow from fathers having a close relationship with their child. While these analyses do not set out to ascertain whether either of these pathways are more dominant, the data allow us to examine whether fathers who are more involved in children's personal care tend to have a parenting style that is more "warm". This warm parenting style is the average of responses regarding how often fathers do the following:

  • express affection by hugging, kissing and holding this child;
  • hug or hold this child for no particular reason;
  • tell this child how happy he/she makes you;
  • have warm, close times together with this child;
  • enjoy doing things with this child; and
  • feel close to this child both when he/she is happy and when he/she is upset.

These underlying items are measured on a scale of 1 (never or almost never) to 5 (always or almost always), and the warm parenting style scale therefore has this range also. To follow from the previous section, just the Wave 3 data for 4-5 year olds are used. While not shown, the same patterns described here were observed for 2-3 year olds and 6-7 year olds.

Most fathers responded very positively to these items. For example, 31% of fathers scored between 4.6 and 5 out of 5, and we refer to such fathers as having a higher warm parenting style. Another 43% scored between 4.0 and 4.5, here labelled a moderate warm parenting style, and the remaining 26% scored less than 4.0, here labelled lower warm parenting style. Using these three groups, Figure 3.8 shows the associations with fathers' involvement in three of the personal care activities. These data show that fathers who had lower levels of parental warmth were somewhat less involved in their child's personal care activities, with the greatest involvement being among fathers with higher levels of parental warmth.

Figure 3.8: Fathers' involvement in personal care by fathers' level of warm parenting style, B cohort Wave 3

Figure 3.8 Fathers' involvement in personal care by fathers' level of warm parenting style, B cohort Wave 3 - as described in text.

Note: Warm parenting style is measured on a scale of 1 to 5 - from least to most warm. "Higher" are those whose parenting warmth was in the range 4.6 to 5.0; "moderate" are those with parenting warmth in the range 4.0 to 4.5; and "lower" are those with parenting warmth of less than 4.0.

As noted previously with other analyses of these data, there is far from direct concordance between these measures, such that some of the fathers with lower warm parenting had frequent involvement with their children's personal care, and some of the higher warm parenting fathers had less frequent involvement.

3.5 Summary

This analysis provides some insights into the contributions made by fathers to family life by examining fathers' involvement in children's personal care activities. According to Australian as well as international evidence (e.g., Craig, 2006; Laflamme et al., 2002), such personal care tasks are more often undertaken by mothers than by fathers, and this was shown to be true in these data; here as well as by Baxter and Smart (2010). Nevertheless, some involvement by fathers was apparent.

While some of the personal care tasks in themselves may not be particularly fulfilling for either parent, they do provide opportunities for parents to develop relationships with their children, and to contribute to the co-parental relationship (Almeida & Galambos, 1991; Coltrane, 1996; Lamb, 1997). Also, fathers' involvement in their children's personal care activities may reflect their interest in spending time with children and their desire to have an active parenting role. Certainly these data have shown that there is an association between involvement in personal care activities and warm parenting, as well as in mothers' perceptions of fathers as being a resource and support. In these analyses, we could not ascertain whether fathers' involvement in children's personal care came about because of a different attitude or motivation toward children and parenting, but it is likely that this is to some extent true.

These analyses showed that certain factors were associated with different levels of involvement by fathers in children's personal care. In particular, fathers' paid working hours was an important factor, with lower levels of involvement found among those working longer hours. This was less apparent for the 4-5 year old children, for whom involvement by fathers (and mothers) across the range of activities had declined relative to younger children. These analyses also showed that when mothers worked longer hours, fathers tended to be more involved in personal care activities. Differences between married and cohabiting fathers were small and usually not statistically significant. On the other hand, lower levels of involvement were often found for fathers who had non-resident children. Fathers were found to be more involved with the care of boys than girls, especially for the more personal activities, although differences were not all statistically significant.

An important point is that factors beyond those analysed here are likely to contribute to different levels of involvement by fathers. In fact this may, in some respects, come back to the degree to which fathers wish to be involved as parents - their level of motivation (Lamb, 1997; Lamb et al., 1987). For example, even among fathers who work long hours, there will be fathers who frequently help with the care of children; and in families with mothers who are not employed, there will be full-time employed fathers who like to share the care of children on weekends, or in the morning or evenings.

This paper has examined just one way in which fathers can contribute to the upbringing of children, and as such does not present a comprehensive picture of fathering. Nevertheless, the analyses allow us to see that involvement in children's personal care is connected to other aspects of fathering (parenting style and co-parenting) and that it does vary with some characteristics of fathers and families.

Gaining greater insights into the ways in which fathers contribute to family life, and of factors that are associated with lesser or greater involvement by fathers, can be used to inform the development of policies that may affect families' decisions about the sharing of child care tasks. While government policy and fathering are most often discussed in relation to separated families, there are areas in which policy can also be relevant to fathering in intact families. Most often, this is discussed in relation to issues of work and family. For example, as we have seen here, there are different patterns of father involvement according to parental employment patterns, and thus the nature of the labour market and related workplace policies may make a difference to the ways in which fathers can participate in various child care tasks. Policies concerning leave for fathers or concerning access to family-friendly work arrangements are particularly relevant here.

We have seen here that the majority of fathers in the LSAC study:

  • have some involvement with their child's personal care;
  • are reported to be supportive partners; and
  • exhibit warm parenting behaviours.

While a small proportion, there are some fathers who portray a less positive picture, and this is a reminder that some fathers may face certain barriers to being involved as a parent. For these fathers, there may be opportunities for policies and programs to encourage and support involvement in family life. This may include, for example, helping to overcome potential barriers, such as those that can arise through relationship conflict and mental health difficulties.3

This study of fathers' involvement in children's personal care provides some insights that have not previously been explored in relation to how fathers participate in raising their children. With LSAC being a longitudinal study, it will be interesting to see how fathers' involvement in these activities relates to patterns of fathering at later ages as children grow older.

3.6 Further reading

  • Baxter, J. A. (2007). When dad works long hours: How work hours are associated with fathering 4-5-year-old children. Family Matters, 77, 60-69.
  • Baxter, J. A. (2010). An exploration of the timing and nature of parental time with 4-5 year olds using Australian children's time use data (Research Paper No. 45). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Baxter, J. A., Gray, M., Alexander, M., Strazdins, L., & Bittman, M. (2007). Mothers and fathers with young children: Paid employment, caring and wellbeing (Social Policy Research Paper No. 30). Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  • Baxter, J. A., & Hayes, A. (2007). How four year olds spend their day: Insights into the caring contexts of young children. Family Matters, 76, 34-43.
  • Baxter, J. A., & Smart, D. (2010). Fathering in Australia among couple families with young children (Occasional Paper No. 37). Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  • Hosking, A., Whitehouse, G., & Baxter, J. (2010). Duration of leave and resident fathers' involvement in infant care in Australia. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 15.

3.7 References

  • Almeida, D. M., & Galambos, N. L. (1991). Examining father involvement and the quality of father-adolescent relations. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 1(2), 155-172.
  • Baxter, J. A. (2009). Parental time with children: Do job characteristics make a difference? (AIFS Research Paper No. 44). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Baxter, J. A. (2010). An exploration of the timing and nature of parental time with 4-5 year olds using Australian children's time use data (Research Paper No. 45). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Baxter, J. A., Gray, M., Alexander, M., Strazdins, L., & Bittman, M. (2007). Mothers and fathers with young children: Paid employment, caring and wellbeing (Social Policy Research Paper No. 30). Canberra: Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  • Baxter, J. A., & Smart, D. (2010). Fathering in Australia among couple families with young children (Occasional Paper No. 37). Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  • Belsky, J. (1984). The determinants of parenting: A process model. Child Development, 55(1), 83-96.
  • Bronte-Tinkew, J., Scott, M. E., Horowitz, A., & Lilja, E. (2009). Pregnancy intentions during the transition to parenthood and links to coparenting for first-time fathers of infants. Parenting, 9(1), 1-35.
  • Coltrane, S. (1996). Family man. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Craig, L. (2006). Does father care mean fathers share? A comparison of how mothers and fathers in intact families spend time with children. Gender and Society, 20(2), 259-281.
  • Craig, L., & Mullan, K. (2010). Parenthood, gender and work family time in the United States, Australia, Italy, France, and Denmark. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(5), 1344-1361.
  • Laflamme, D., Pomerleau , A., & Malcuit , G. (2002). A comparison of fathers' and mothers' involvement in child care and stimulation behaviors during free-play with their infants at 9 and 15 months. Sex roles, 47(11), 507-518.
  • Lamb, M. E. (1997). Fathers and child development: An introductory overview and guide. In The role of the father in child development (3rd ed., pp. 1-18). New York: Wiley.
  • Lamb, M. E., Pleck, J., Charnov, E., & Levine, J. (1987). A biosocial perspective on paternal behavior and involvement. In J. B. Lancaster, J. Altmann, A. S. Rossi, & L. R. Sherrod (Eds.), Parenting across the life span: Biosocial dimensions (pp. 111-141). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
  • Marsiglio, W. (1991). Paternal engagement activities with minor children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 53(4), 973-986.
  • Pleck, J. (1997). Paternal involvement: Levels, sources and consequences. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The role of the father in child development (3rd ed., pp. 66-103). New York: Wiley.
  • Van Egeren, L. A., & Hawkins, D. P. (2004). Coming to terms with coparenting: Implications of definition and measurement. Journal of Adult Development, 11(3), 165-178.
  • Wang, R., & Bianchi, S. M. (2009). ATUS fathers' involvement in child care. Social Indicators Research, 93(1), 141-145.
  • Wilson, K. R., & Prior, M. R. (2010). Father involvement: The importance of paternal solo care. Early Child Development and Care, 180(10), 1391-1405.
  • Wood, J. J., & Repetti, R. L. (2004). What gets dad involved? A longitudinal study of change in parental child caregiving involvement. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), 237-249.

Footnotes

1 Other variables included in the multivariate analyses by Baxter and Smart (2010), but not examined here, were: mothers' and fathers' level of educational attainment, child's health, child temperament, numbers of older and younger siblings, parent-reported financial wellbeing and happiness of the relationship, fathers' age and relationship to child (biological or step-), fathers' mental health, fathers' main language spoken at home and fathers' Indigenous status.

2 Parents were also asked to rate themselves in terms of how often they were a resource or support to their partner. Interestingly, overall the distribution based on fathers' self-reports is similar to that of mothers' reports about fathers. Of the fathers, 40% said they were always a resource or support, 41% said they were often a resource or support, 17% said they were sometimes a support and 3% said they were rarely or never a resource or support.

3 For examples of such programs, see <www.aifs.gov.au/cafca/topics/issue/issue.html#parenting>.

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