A Big Brother: New Findings on How Low-Income Fathers Define Responsible Fatherhood
I interviewed 57 low-income fathers about how they define responsible fatherhood. Unlike findings from previous research, their definition did not include financial provision or daily caregiving. Instead, their definition included six dimensions, some of which resemble a “Big Brother”: spending time in non-caregiving activities; avoiding harm by voluntarily distancing from the child when it is in the child’s best interest; acknowledging paternity in non-legal forums; spending money on gifts, joint activities, and special needs; monitoring the child’s home for trouble; and minimizing absences in the child’s life. Because these fathers do not emphasize traditional breadwinning or primary caregiving, their responsible fathering beliefs and behavior may be unappreciated by academics, practitioners, and policy makers.
KeywordsFatherhoodFragile familiesLow-income fatherResponsible fatherhood
A debate about responsible fatherhood has been taking place in the United States since the mid-1960s. Researchers and policy makers disagree about the definition of responsible fatherhood and how to apply that definition. One common definition of responsible fatherhood focuses on delaying childbearing, declaring legal paternity, financially providing, and caregiving (Levine and Pitt 1995). In this research, I interviewed 57 low-income urban fathers in order to understand how they defined responsible fatherhood and to compare that definition to this common definition.
I found that these men had a different definition of what constitutes responsible fatherhood than the definition widely used by social scientists. Instead, I found that these fathers defined a responsible father as someone who: spent time with the child on non-caregiving tasks; avoided harming the child by distancing from the child when needed; acknowledged paternity to himself, the child, the mother, and the extralegal community; spent money on gifts, joint activities, and special needs and met the child’s financial needs before his own luxuries; monitored the child’s home for danger; and minimized the number and duration of absences. Part of their definition of responsible fatherhood resembled the notion of a “Big Brother.”
Responsible Fatherhood: Public Policy
In the past 50 years, the meaning of fatherhood has been intensely questioned on three different occasions: the concern about Black fathers spurred by the Moynihan report (1965), the debate about fathers as caregivers caused by women’s entry into the workplace (1970s and 1980s), and the debate about how to get men more committed to fatherhood in the Responsible Fatherhood movement (early 1990s). First, in 1965, the influential Moynihan report was released, holding female-headed families and father absence responsible for poverty among African-Americans (Moynihan). The Moynihan Report argued that disproportionate rates of poverty in African-American communities could be solved by increasing fathers’ participation in the home as breadwinners. This report was subject to considerable public criticism based on the perception that it displayed racism and sexism, ignored middle-class Blacks, and failed to distinguish between race and class.
In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s entry into the workplace, increases in divorce rates, rising rates of out-of-wedlock birth, and the feminist movement spurred a second fatherhood crisis, this time among upper-middle class people. While the earlier crisis in the 1960s focused on men who were unable to fulfill their breadwinning role, this later crisis challenged fathers’ role as sole providers and emphasized a shift toward sharing of care work. During this time, the ideal of a “new father” emerged. A new father was seen as a father who was nurturing, responsible, engaged, and an active caregiver (Lamb et al. 1985, 1987).
In the early 1990s, renewed concern about fathers in low-income families and Evangelical Christian resurgence led to the Responsible Fatherhood Movement. In contrast to the feminist movement, which emphasized father’s role as caregivers, the Responsible Fatherhood Movement again emphasized men’s roles as financial providers and as the head of a household. Renewed concerns that welfare policies encouraged single motherhood engendered the substantially revised welfare policy in 1996. Among other things, this policy intended to increase fathers’ financial, legal, and emotional involvement with their children by decreasing the availability of state support to single mothers. In 1995, the Million Man March drew hundreds of thousands of African-American men to Washington, DC to recommit themselves to responsible fatherhood (Madhubuti and Karenga 1996). The early 1990s also saw the growth of the Promise Keepers, a Christian organization dedicated to helping men reassert their commitments to marriage and fatherhood through their religious beliefs (Bartkowski 2004).
Today, the Responsible Fatherhood movement is characterized by two politically opposed groups: pro-marriage advocates and fragile family advocates (Gavanas 2004). Both groups agree that fathers should be more involved in their families. Pro-marriage advocates, focusing on middle-class families, encourage pro-marriage policies at the macro level, welfare policies which encourage marriage, and revision of other laws to favor marriage. In contrast, fragile family advocates, focusing on low-income and minority families, encourage economic opportunity at a more micro level, the creation of local jobs, and one-on-one job training for individual men. However, “whereas marriage is a key issue for the pro-marriage wing, work is a key issue in the fragile-families wing” (Gavanas 2004, p. 31, italics in the original).
Responsible Fatherhood: Social Science Contributions
The increased public policy attention to fathers has also encouraged increased attention by social scientists (Coltrane 2001). Social scientists have contributed to the discussion on responsible fatherhood in seven ways.
(a) He waits to make a baby until he is prepared emotionally and financially to support his child.
(b) He establishes his legal paternity if and when he does make a baby.
(c) He actively shares with the child’s mother in the continuing emotional and physical care of their child, from pregnancy onwards.
(d) He shares with the child’s mother in the continuing financial support of their child, from pregnancy onwards (pp. 5–6).
Other social scientists have offered much broader definitions of responsibility to include any element an individual considers essential to responsibility (Marsiglio et al. 2001). Yet others have argued that discussion over individual responsibility in fathering detracts from the more important issue of state responsibility for children (Coltrane 2001).
Second, social scientists have challenged negative stereotypes of stigmatized fathers by demonstrating that low-income fathers are more involved than previously thought. For example, researchers found that many single-mothers have a cohabiting boyfriend who assists with childcare, so that these families are actually two-parent families even though the Census Bureau might not report them as such (Edin and Lein 1997; Nelson 2004).
Third, social scientists have demonstrated that fathers matter in children’s lives by providing data about how children’s lives, health, and education differ when they have different types of fathers or different levels of father involvement (Amato 2005; Coleman-Jensen 2011; Hofferth and Pinzon 2011). Substantial evidence has emerged that having two parents benefits children, although the quality of those relationships remains a key explanatory factor (Edin and Reed 2005). Debate has continued about the necessity of a biological relationship, marriage, coresidence, or gender difference among the parents (Cherlin 2005; Nock 2005).
Fourth, some social scientists have explored how to get fathers more involved with their children, under the assumption that father involvement is beneficial (Doherty et al. 1998). Sociologists who believe that the traditional two-parent family is best have proposed ways to encourage greater father involvement within two-parent families, for example by promoting joint custody (Allen et al. 2011; Nock 2005). Other sociologists from a wide range of political orientations have also proposed mechanisms to encourage father involvement among non-custodial fathers, often through encouraging marriage (Coltrane 1989; Hofferth et al. 2010; Tamis-Lamonda and Cabrera 2002).
Fifth, social scientists have focused on measuring fathering behavior, involvement, and responsibility with increasing precision. Much of the recent work on fatherhood has involved refining definitions and measurements by obtaining better samples and measuring father involvement more effectively (Day and Lamb 2004; Maume 2010). Recent sociological work, including Fragile Families, a multi-million dollar, multi-site study on low-income fathers, focused on obtaining higher quality representative samples in order to improve accuracy and statistical power (Reichman et al. 2001).
Sixth, social scientists have analyzed the political landscape of fatherhood and the responsible fatherhood movement itself. Gavanas (2004) explored responsible fatherhood as a social movement and critically analyzed its political orientation. Others have focused on its relationship with Evangelical Christianity, political conservatives and with academics themselves (Coltrane 2001; Stacey 1998).
Seventh, social scientists have studied how fathers themselves define responsible fatherhood. In terms of low-income fathers, some research, including research from Fragile Families, found that they may have fairly mainstream definitions about responsible fatherhood, including an emphasis on being a provider, at least at the time of the birth (Carlson and McLanahan 2010). However, the Fragile Families data were limited at the time of this finding to fathers of young children who had a child outside of marriage. This finding may not be accurate for fathers of older children or married fathers. In contrast, some research found that men sometimes substitute for failure to financially provide by direct caregiving (Roy 2004). Yet other research found that low-income fathers may adapt different definitions of responsible fatherhood when they are unable to achieve the breadwinning ideal (Hamer 2001).
There are obvious strengths in the social science research on responsible fatherhood, including a clear emphasis on low-income fathers’ lives, attention to diversity, and accuracy in measurement. However, findings on how low-income fathers define responsible fatherhood are contradictory. Qualitative interviews are ideal for understanding how people create meaning. The goal of my research was to help resolve this contradiction by using qualitative interviews to better understand the nuance of low-income fathers’ definitions of responsible fatherhood.
I conducted 57 semi-structured interviews of urban lower-income men in Oakland, California between September and December 2007, as part of a larger project. I selected Oakland for several reasons. First, Oakland had a great deal of racial diversity with 68.7 % of the population identifying as non-white and no racial group claiming more than 35.7 % of the population (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2007). Second, Oakland also had a larger proportion of low-income individuals than most other cities. According to 1999 data, 19.4 % of people in Oakland live below the poverty line, compared to 12.5 % of the United States at large. Third, Oakland was also well represented in previous sociological research on family life in urban areas (Waller and Swisher 2006).
While random sampling is desirable for large-scale quantitative analysis in order to improve generalizability, targeted purposive sampling is more common in theory-generating qualitative research. Purposive sampling allows qualitative research to uncover the mechanisms that lead to particular patterns and to offer in-depth understandings of processes affecting particular groups. Therefore, I employed a strategic targeted sampling method that targeted low-income urban fathers in order to effectively explore the meanings of fatherhood among these men.
I used multiple recruitment methods in order to obtain a broad sample of low-income men in Oakland. I located the majority of the respondents using a newspaper ad. I also located interview subjects using a flyer, snowball sampling, an online advertisement, and direct contact with low-income fathers. Interviews lasted approximately one to two hours and were conducted in a location of the respondent’s choice, including public parks, homes, restaurants and coffee shops, and the interview subject’s work site.
Descriptives for demographic characteristics in the sample of low-income fathers
Mean or percent (frequency)
Age (in years)
44 % (25)
28 % (16)
12 % (7)
12 % (7)
51 % (29)
11 % (6)
4 % (2)
35 % (20)
No. of children
Less than HS
19 % (10)
40 % (21)
30 % (18)
4 % (2)
2 % (1)
2 % (1)
47 % (27)
53 % (30)
33 % (15)
23 % (10)
37 % (16)
11 % (5)
56 % (31)
44 % (24)
47 % (27)
Biological non-residential only
40 % (23)
Social father only
12 % (7)
I used a semi-structured interview format. Semi-structured interviews allowed me flexibility to tailor the interview so as to best understand fathers’ beliefs and ideals. For example, by starting with very open ended questions like, “What makes a good father?” I was able to analyze not just the content of their answer, but the order of their responses, how they changed their answer or focus throughout their response, and how and when they referenced other parts of our interview. I was also able to follow up directly with questions that emerged throughout the interview, for example, by asking a man directly why he referenced one child in talking about his fathering behavior but not another. All of this information was vital for dissecting the meaning of fatherhood in men’s lives and creating typologies that accurately reflected their experiences.
The focus of my interviews was not to determine whether or not men were responsible fathers by some objective measure, but rather to understand what it meant to them to be a responsible father and what that definition meant for their lives. Qualitative research, particularly semi-structured interviews, was ideal for understanding these nuances. Nevertheless, because beliefs often stem from behavior, I focused the first part of the interview on the man’s behavior as a father, including information on his child support contributions, what name the child(ren) uses to refer to him, whether or not he have ever sought custody, how often he lived with the child(ren), and who provided childcare during different parts of the child(ren)’s life. During the second part of the interview, I asked questions about beliefs, including “What does a good father do?” “Are you a responsible father?” “What is a deadbeat dad?” and “What do you do to be a good father to your child(ren)?”
My own race, gender, and class as a white, middle-class woman, most likely impacted my relationship with the men I interviewed. Previous research has shown that the race and gender of the interviewer influence interview responses, especially when the interview includes questions about race and gender attitudes and practices (Taylor et al. 1995). A recent study on Black men’s experiences with crime showed that they gave more detailed and rich descriptive information when interviewed by another Black man. However, the content of those interviews did not substantially differ depending on the interviewer (Brunson and Miller 2006). I was not a member of the study population, and I made my outsider status obvious by posing questions like, “I am obviously not a father, can you tell me what you like about it?” Previous work has shown that this strategy can evoke more elucidating responses by interviewees who must explain norms and roles to someone who “isn’t from around here” (Phillips and Bowling 2003). Interviews were recorded on a portable tape recorder and transcribed.
Throughout the data collection process, I performed constant comparative analysis of each interview to previous interviews and shaped the interview process accordingly. After each of the first five or ten interviews, I changed the interview schema slightly. I collected data until I reached saturation. After collecting all of the data, I systematically coded it using Atlas.ti, paying particular attention to the themes that emerged during the interview process.
The goal of this research was to better understand how low-income fathers define responsible fatherhood. The qualitative nature of this research was ideal for understanding low-income fathers’ definition of responsible fatherhood in their own words. I believe that this approach allowed men to explain their fatherhood ideals without the potential bias in a survey. For example, when I directly asked a small number of men about whether declaring legal paternity was important, they responded affirmatively. However, no man volunteered that declaring legal paternity was important without being asked. Survey research, because it poses questions that respondents must reply to, may encourage more socially desirable responses. Qualitative research overcomes some of those limitations by allowing respondents to reply in their own words. This research study allowed men to explain how they defined responsible fatherhood, in their own terms, without my introducing hegemonic definitions of responsible fatherhood.
Findings and Observations
Relative importance of fathering tasks
1st (most important)
16 (32 %)
18 (36 %)
14 (28 %)
8 (16 %)
19 (38 %)
11 (22 %)
7 (14 %)
11 (22 %)
13 (26 %)
8 (16 %)
21 (42 %)
7 (14 %)
4th (least important)
2 (4 %)
13 (26 %)
8 (16 %)
24 (48 %)
In my results, 70 % of men ranked nurturing as either most important or second most important. In addition, 58 % of men ranked protecting among the top two most important tasks. Thus, there was a slight trend toward fathers ranking nurturing in the top position, then protecting, discipline, and financial provision clearly last. However, the differences between nurturing, protecting, and discipline were slight and in a qualitative study like this were not inherently meaningful. However, just under half of these fathers identified providing money as the least important and 62 % of fathers ranked it in the bottom half of importance. These two findings clearly show that these fathers did not think of financial contribution as the most important way that they contribute to their children. Instead, time, nurturing, discipline, and protecting all ranked as more important.
Defining characteristics of responsible fatherhood
32 (56 %)
Avoiding negative behavior
22 (39 %)
14 (25 %)
Spending money on special items
13 (23 %)
Monitoring the home
8 (14 %)
4 (7 %)
Considerable caution is necessary when interpreting the numerical results presented in Table 3. The semi-structured nature of the interviews meant that each interview was different. With the exception of the few questions mentioned above and demographic questions, each interview was widely different. Many fathers simply never brought up some aspects of fathering and the discussion focused on other challenges they faced. Thus, the numerical results in Table 3 inform the reader how many men happened to mention an item in an interview, but it is very likely that other fathers simply did not happen to mention these elements of fathering. The results can be interpreted to mean that these six priorities emerged throughout the interviews. However, the actual number of men who viewed each item as a priority is likely much higher than the number who happened to mention it in an interview.
Table 3 suggests that these fathers may have prioritized sharing the finite resource of time with their children more than they emphasized spending money on them. When fathers did mention money it was in terms of special items rather than providing daily sustenance. The other elements that were mentioned were largely behavioral rather than resource-based.
Spending Time Together
Thirty-two men (56 %) mentioned spending time together, which was the most common element of responsible fathering that these men described. Although men spoke about the importance of spending time with their children as an act of responsibility, they did not emphasize daily caregiving tasks (e.g., cooking meals, bathing the child, taking the child to school). Instead, they emphasized sharing playful activities. For example, when Dillon,2 a 53-year-old Black father of two, was asked what he did to be a good father to his child, he replied, “Movies. Sports, he likes videos, you know, like DVD’s stuff like that, bicycles, you know.” Similarly, Marcos, a 26-year-old White-Portuguese father of three, responded, “Play. We watch a lot of movies, go for walks. I read to them sometimes. That’s about it really.” Xavier, a 31-year-old Black father of five, also said, “We go to the baseball games, football games, to the zoo, the park, play video games together. Always going out to eat with them. You know, the basics.” These fathers indicated that playing with their children is a high priority.
Fathers also emphasized providing moral guidance to children through sex-role modeling. For example, Damion, a 50-year-old Black father of four, said:
Dad should be there to guide the kids, like I said, especially boys. I keep saying boys, because they are always there, you know, watching every move. So he should be there for guidance, you know. Help them grow up to be a better man.
Similarly, Tyler, a 20-year-old White father of six (one biological and five social children), said, “A father’s responsibility with his daughter is to make sure they’re safe. Alright. You know, watch their little boyfriends when they come in the house.” Consistent with prior research, these men stressed sex-typical behavior.
Men also emphasized discipline and teaching more broadly. When I asked Dwayne, a 42-year-old Black father of two, to tell me the greatest contribution a man makes to his children, he responded:
Just raising them and then just seeing beautiful results…out of all of the discipline you teach them…as they come up and then…they just grow up and…they’re happy. You show them how to set goals and they, you know, they’re completing them and accomplishing them.
In all of these examples, it was less important to men what they actually did when they were with their children than it was that they spent time with them. While men stressed a wide range of activities (play, moral guidance, sex-role modeling, discipline, and teaching), it is notable to mention the tasks that they did not stress. Men did not stress any direct caregiving tasks: bathing, feeding, or dressing their child, shopping for the child’s needs, driving their child to appointments, planning activities with other children, or planning for their children’s medical needs. They also did not stress any housekeeping tasks that benefit children: laundry, shopping, cooking, or cleaning.
Twenty-two of these fathers (39 %) mentioned that responsible fatherhood required men to avoid negative behavior that hurts the child and to avoid the child when contact would be harmful. For example, Kendell, a 32-year-old Black father of two, moved away from his daughter for six years during her early childhood while he was battling a serious drug addiction:
After my grandma died, my brother was like, “Just move man.” He’s like, “At least come up here and get yourself straight, so … you can be alive, you can be around long enough to, you know, to actually do something with her.”
After his six year absence, he moved back and resumed a relationship with his daughter. He felt like staying with the child during that six years would have led him to remain an addict, which would have ultimately harmed his daughter.
Derek, a 28-year-old Black father of two, also tearfully shared the story of how he decided to move away from his daughter and stop contacting her because he knew he could be abusive toward her mother:
So, I had to leave the situation and I know it doesn’t look right in society’s eyes. “Oh you’re a man, you’re supposed to stay there.” Yeah, but that’s asking for an injury or something, you know. I can get mad at her [his ex-girlfriend], push her and she hits her head, gets a concussion, doesn’t wake up.
Despite the fact that he felt like his absence was in the best interest of the child, it was still a painful decision. From one perspective, a father who admitted a propensity to assault his ex-girlfriend was clearly prone to seriously irresponsible behavior. On the other hand, the fact that he recognized this propensity and therefore chose to distance himself from his child and her mother showed a clear effort toward responsible behavior.
Other men said that a responsible father is someone who is not abusive or neglectful and, rather than offering a strong definition of what made a responsible father, they gave a clear definition of an irresponsible father and defined themselves as different from that definition. For most of these men, an irresponsible father was someone who actually harmed a child, and avoiding inducing actual harm was a sign of responsibility. For example, Jazeel, a 50-year-old Black father of two, defined a “bad father” this way: “Bad father is when you allow society to say he’s nothing, and he tells that child, ‘You ain’t nothing. You ain’t going to be nothing.’ When he neglects the child.” Similarly, Marcos, a 26-year-old White-Phillipino father of three, described a bad father as one who was “Abusing their children.” Avoiding abuse and neglect was a minimum marker of responsibility.
Finally, a responsible father was someone who didn’t take assets away from the child’s home, causing the child more harm. For example, Malcolm, a 20-year-old father of one, described an “irresponsible dad” as “Someone that’s not there for her at all. And that comes around when he needs something.” While it may seem a simple matter to avoid taking resources away from children’s homes, in the case of serious poverty and drug addiction, not taking resources away from children is an accomplishment and sign of commitment.
Acknowledging Extralegal Paternity
Fourteen of these men (25 %) mentioned acknowledging paternity as important for being a responsible father. Denying paternity was seen as fundamentally irresponsible. For example, when asked about what makes an irresponsible father, Malcolm, a 20-year-old father of one, sardonically stated that it was irresponsible to “Deny that it might possibly be your kid when there’s a good chance it probably is because you did it with the mom.” Similarly, Maurice, a 46-year-old Black father of five, described a deadbeat dad this way:
I think a deadbeat dad is a person that don’t give a damn at all. You know, he don’t care whether he got kids. He ain’t going to try to do nothing. He don’t think about doing it. He ain’t even acknowledging it.
By stressing “even acknowledging it,” Maurice indicates that acknowledging paternity is the most basic behavior necessary to avoid being a deadbeat dad. Thus, for Maurice, acknowledging paternity was one of the most fundamental acts of responsibility.
When I tried to clarify to whom and how a man should acknowledge paternity, fathers stated that a man should generally acknowledge paternity to himself, to the child, to the mother, and to appropriate members of his local community, like his extended family. In contrast to definitions of responsibility proposed by social researchers, no father in this study volunteered “acknowledging legal paternity” as a fundamental dimension of responsible fatherhood. However, the few fathers that I directly questioned about the importance of declaring legal paternity responded in the affirmative. It is perhaps not surprising that these fathers did not emphasize the legal declaration of paternity, since these men regularly experienced unwelcome state intervention into their private family lives through Child Support Enforcement and Child Protective Services. Many of these men had also had negative experiences with the law and did not seek out additional opportunities for legal intervention in their private lives. Consistent with the experiences of low-income urban men, nearly half of the men in this sample had spent time in jail (see Table 1).
Spending Money on Gifts, Joint Activities, and Special Needs
Thirteen of these fathers (23 %) explicitly volunteered that they did not believe that providing direct substantial financial support was necessary to be a good or responsible father. At the same time, they acknowledged the social pressure from society to financially provide. For example, Jason, a 37-year-old White father of three, contrasted his own belief about what made a deadbeat dad with what the “courts” stated: “Deadbeat dad. Well, I guess the courts say it’s someone who doesn’t pay up. But I think it’s a whole communication thing. Not calling. Not caring. Not being involved.”
Men actively resisted the notion that father’s greatest contribution to their children is financial and instead emphasized the importance of providing something greater than money. For example, Jazeel, a 50-year-old Black father of two, said, “My family didn’t have a lot of money. But they did discipline, they did nurture and they did protect… That’s something that money can’t buy.” Similarly, when asked if men should be forced to pay child support, Xavier, a 31-year-old Black father of five, said, “No, because you can’t…the world don’t revolve around money all the time. You got to give your kid love.”
Men’s own sense of their primary financial obligation to their children involved having money for gifts, having money for joint activities, and having money when the child or mother requested it for a special need. In my sample, 14 fathers (25 %) specifically mentioned the importance of spending money on gifts or special items. Often, they had no money available for formal child support after these self-imposed financial obligations were met. For example, in response to the question of whether it ever stressed him out to be a father, Dwayne, a 42-year-old Black father of two, said, “Sometimes, yeah, you know. You know, certain things come up, like now, you know, it’s Christmas time and, you know, I have to get a gift.” For Dwayne, who was unemployed, had a high school education, and earned less than $10,000 in the last year, purchasing a Christmas gift for both of his biological children was a substantial financial burden and the limit of his possible financial contribution to his children.
Diego, a 31-year-old Hispanic father of two, also explained the high financial costs of spending time with his children. For him to spend a day with his children, he had to miss work, find and pay for transportation to the children’s home, pay for transportation for him and the child to an activity, pay for an activity with the child, pay for food for the child and himself, pay for transportation back to the child’s home, then pay for transportation back to his own home. Visiting his child once a month eliminated his discretionary income and left no remaining money for child support or for luxury items for himself.
However, even though the men I interviewed were often unable to pay their full child support obligations through official channels, some men also said it was selfish to pay for luxuries for themselves if their child’s basic needs were not met. Malcolm, a 20-year-old father of one, simply described how his child always received clothes or treats before he purchased luxuries for himself: “They come first and then you.”
Monitoring the Home
Eight men (14 %) mentioned that responsible fathers monitored the child’s home to make sure it was safe, and then interceded when necessary. Wendel, a 39-year-old Black father of one, had a non-residential daughter who lived with her biological mother. At one point, he discovered that his daughter’s mother was drug-addicted. Because he believed that the daughter’s mother was unable to provide adequate care due to her addiction, he arranged for his daughter to be transferred to his own mother’s custody. When I asked why he did not take her into custody himself at the time, he explained that he was unemployed and homeless.
Other men recounted similar examples of monitoring their children’s well-being to make sure that their needs were met. Similar to a social worker, this supervision did not mean that fathers necessarily met those needs themselves, only that they arranged for their needs to be met by someone who was capable. Julian, a 42-year-old Black father of seven, described how he monitored his children’s lives by keeping tabs on their mother:
Before I met, she was into different stuff, different kinds of drugs, and when she discovered that I wasn’t that type of person, then she stopped because she wanted to be with me. But, see, when we split up, she goes back to that part of her life and I wasn’t going to allow that to happen…She knows that…I might take those kids away from her.
In other words, Julian hoped that his threat of taking the children out of her custody would help his children’s mother stay off of drugs and, thus, keep his children in a safe home. Another father described secretly following his child’s CPS worker to the foster home where his child was living in order to check out the home and make sure that it was safe. These fathers felt a responsibility to make sure that their children’s needs were being met even while they acknowledged that they could not necessarily meet those needs themselves.
Four men (7 %) specifically mentioned the importance of minimizing absences in their children’s lives. Fathers were occasionally absent from their children’s lives for many reasons: drug or alcohol addiction, jail, rehabilitation, criminal activity, physical distance, military service, period of despair where they felt ashamed to interact with their children, intense commitments to romantic partners or other children, and periods of demanding work. These absences lasted from a few days to several years. These fathers were critical of other men and themselves when they spent “too long” unavailable to their children. It is worth noting that their definition of responsible fatherhood did not require a father to always be present, but it did require efforts to keep absences as short as possible.
Ironically, child support enforcement laws sometimes forced periods of absence. Wallace, a White father of one, had a back child support debt of $61,000. He had lost his driver’s license and was concerned that he might go to jail. Both the loss of his driver’s license, which eliminated his transportation and created insurmountable distance between himself and his child, and his behavior to avoid returning to jail created absences from his child. We can imagine other ways that child support enforcement could create absences by demanding intensive work, requiring that fathers prioritize certain children over others, or through court-ordered residential rehabilitation.
The “Big Brother” Model
It is difficult to identify a single term that characterizes these six dimensions of responsible fatherhood. Any effort to identify a new term to identify how these low-income fathers define responsible fatherhood has two disadvantages. First, calling these men’s definition of responsible fatherhood by any name other than responsible fatherhood, only serves to reinforce hegemonic definitions of responsible fatherhood as the “real” definition and these men’s definition as alternative and less valid. Second, no single term encompasses the broad range of activities that these fathers include in their understanding of responsible fatherhood.
Despite these limitations, fathers’ description of their beliefs about responsible fatherhood had some similarities to a Big Brother. The fathers I interviewed did not use this term, however after I encountered it in a Fatherhood Responsibility Center where I conducted an interview, I found that it accurately described some of the terms that these men used to describe what makes a responsible father. One online recruitment advertisement for a Big Brother states, “some students do talk with their [Big Brothers] about class, or do homework, or read together, but it’s really all about friendship and guidance. You can play or jump rope or shoot hoops—whatever you and the student enjoy.” (Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, 2008).
Similar to this description, the low-income men that I interviewed often described responsible fatherhood in terms unrelated to regular financial provision or daily care, which are both outside the scope of responsibility of a Big Brother. Instead, they focused on roles consistent with a Big Brother: sharing pleasant activities, providing moral guidance, being accessible to the child on a weekly or monthly basis, spending money on joint activities (like taking the child to a basketball game), and mentoring the child. However, this term does not clearly encompass three other dimensions of responsible fatherhood: voluntarily distancing from the child when it is in the child’s best interest, declaring extralegal paternity, and minimizing absences.
As I have illustrated, these fathers have a definition of responsible fatherhood that differs from other research. In this study, I found that men did not substitute for financial provision through direct caregiving, either in practice or in their ideals, as suggested by other authors (Roy 2004). Instead, neither financial provision nor direct caregiving were part of their definition of responsible fatherhood. There are four methodological and two theoretical explanations for why the fathers in this study define responsible fatherhood differently than fathers in previous research.
In terms of methodology, first, I purposely interviewed a very broad range of fathers, including non-residential fathers, cohabiting fathers, and social fathers. Since biology, co-residence, and marriage all increase father involvement, these characteristics may also increase the expectations for responsible fatherhood. In other words, my study disproportionately focused on men whom one would expect to have below average parental involvement. Previous research may have included fewer men who were only social fathers or fewer men who had children in multiple relationships.
Second, I recruited the majority of respondents through a newspaper ad. Unemployed men or men facing serious financial problems may be more likely to read and respond to a classified ad offering money for an interview. Because of their poverty, men who responded to these ads may have been more likely to define responsible fatherhood in terms that did not stress finances. On the other hand, by studying the men facing the most extreme poverty, we can test the universality of the definition of responsible fatherhood.
Third, unlike Fragile Families data, which currently has data on fathers of children under five years old, the fathers in this study had children of a wide range of ages. It is likely that men’s responsible fatherhood standards are shaped through their life course and by their children’s differing needs at different times of life. It is possible that the findings in this study foreshadow the definition of responsible fatherhood that will be offered by fathers in future waves of Fragile Families as their children age.
Fourth, previous research may have overstated men’s commitment to financial provision and caregiving out of a sympathetic desire to avoid further stigmatizing an already marginalized group. Data such as those I have presented can easily be misinterpreted as further “evidence” that low-income fathers are deadbeat dads that do not care about their children and need punitive state control in order to convince them to participate in their children’s lives.
In terms of theoretical approaches, I propose two possible explanations to explain my unusual results. First, a culture of poverty approach with social learning theories as a mechanism could explain these results. Second, a structural approach with cognitive dissonance as a mechanism could also explain these results.
First, a culture of poverty approach would argue that there is a unique culture among impoverished people, complete with unique traditions and beliefs. From this perspective, these fathers have adapted the values unique to their culture. The culture of poverty approach is characterized most clearly by Moynihan’s 1960 argument about low-income fathers which argued that Black families remained in poverty because men had developed cultural norms opposed to marriage, breadwinning, and fatherhood and women had developed cultural norms in favor of single motherhood.
Social learning theory is one type of culture of poverty approach that is potentially compelling to understand why these fathers define responsible fatherhood differently. Social learning states that people learn how to perform their roles by observing others perform those roles, imitating them, and receiving some sort of positive reinforcement (Akers 2009). In this case, social learning theory would argue that men learn how to be fathers by observing their own father. Since many of the men I interviewed did not live with their own biological father for their entire childhood, the father that they learned from may have literally been a Big Brother. If these men had only Big Brothers or Big Brother figures as their father-figures, then they would similarly parent their children according to that model. By extension, they would adapt models of responsible fatherhood that are consistent with the beliefs and behavior of their father-figure who, in their case, was a Big Brother figure. In this case, social learning theory could demonstrate a mechanism for how culture of poverty is transmitted.
Social learning theory is compelling as a culture of poverty theory because it purports to explain the intergenerational transmission of the definition of responsible fatherhood. However, there are several potential problems with this theory. Specifically, while these men may not have had full-time biological fathers of their own, they were certainly exposed to the concept of fathers and responsible fatherhood. In fact, they were forced to craft their ideal of fatherhood from sources other than their own fathers, even more so than children with full-time biological fathers. Thus, social learning theory would potentially predict that their definition of responsible fatherhood more closely resemble the mainstream ideal than children who had direct access to a full time father on which to base their ideals. Further, intergenerational transmission of values and definitions are based on an over-socialized conception of humanity (Wrong 1961) and it does not explain change across generations (Gerson 1985).
Culture of poverty approaches can be appealing because they clearly hold low-income people responsible for the poverty they face, thus justifying harsh social policies which penalize low-income families. Sociologists have widely criticized culture of poverty approaches for failing to account for the structural limitations faced by low-income people and for the ways that beliefs stem from behavior (Wilson 1987).
Second, many sociologists would focus on how structural obstacles shape fathers beliefs and behaviors. A structural approach would argue that these men subscribe to the mainstream definition of responsible fatherhood, insofar as they would have preferred to have children within marriage after establishing financial stability. However, the marriage and economic stability eluded them and they became fathers under circumstances that did not fit the cultural ideal of responsible fatherhood—an ideal that is based on the life circumstances of the more affluent. Having become fathers under less-than-ideal circumstances, these low-income men then refine their understanding of responsible fatherhood in ways that allow them to feel successful in spite of the context in which they have few resources to attain the cultural ideal.
This structural approach fits well with the theory of cognitive dissonance from social psychology. Cognitive dissonance provides a mechanism by which structural limitations lead to new beliefs. This theory states that people cannot hold two conflicting ideas at the same time without experiencing discomfort. Because most people think of themselves as good people, when their behavior comes short of their values, they feel discomfort. Because behavior is very hard to change, they resolve their discomfort by redefining their beliefs. Over time, they learn to value what is available to them, and to devalue that which is out of reach. In this case, this theory would argue that low-income fathers began with a poorly defined definition of responsible fatherhood. They were able to fulfill some parts of that definition well, and their behavior in fulfilling those parts strengthened their belief in those parts. Other dimensions of the definition were more difficult for them to achieve and thus their belief system changed to devalue those dimensions. Over time and with multiple repetitions, a firm definition of responsible fatherhood emerged that was consistent with their behavior. Accordingly, these men may have defined what it means to be a responsible father in a way that fits their actual behavior and what is possible in their lives, because they were unable to attain the ideal of a married, co-residential, financially-stable family and yet still wanted to avoid the negative label of “bad father” (Cooper 2007).
Cognitive dissonance theory is intuitively appealing to explain the mechanisms by which these fathers have adapted a new definition of responsible fatherhood. However, it is worth noting that cognitive dissonance theory could just as easily be used to explain how the hegemonic definition of responsible fatherhood became so widespread. Cognitive dissonance theory could argue that some middle-to-upper class men believed in a poorly articulated definition of responsible fatherhood, they were able to fulfill some parts of that definition well, and their behavior in fulfilling those parts strengthened their belief. Over time and with multiple repetitions, a firm definition of responsible fatherhood which favors the behavior of middle-to-upper-class men emerged with strong cultural support. Simply, cognitive dissonance assumes that all men would eventually define responsible fatherhood as consistent with their behavior, whatever it may be. For privileged men, their definitions become mainstream; for disadvantaged men, their definitions become stigmatized.
Structural approaches have strong explanatory power for conceptualizing both how and why low-income fathers define responsible fatherhood in a way that differs from the mainstream, and they avoid the pitfalls of culture of poverty approaches. It is particularly compelling to consider how cognitive dissonance provides the mechanism to explain how structural limitations impact beliefs.
I found that the low-income fathers in this study define responsible fatherhood in a different way than previous research suggests that they do, with an emphasis on non-caregiving and non-primary financial responsibility tasks. Although I propose several possible explanations, it is beyond the possibilities of these data to suggest which of these methodological and theoretical explanations best explain why these particular fathers had these values. Future research is needed in order to determine which methodological or theoretical explanation best explains these surprising findings.
I believe the greatest potential contribution of this research is to highlight what these fathers believe, not why they have adapted those beliefs. Qualitative research is particularly apt at teasing out uncommon findings that would not emerge from traditional quantitative surveys. In this case, six unique criteria of responsible fatherhood emerged.
These findings have implications for practitioners and academics that study and provide services to low-income fathers. Specifically, low-income fathers may judge their fathering behavior with a completely different set of criteria than practitioners or scholars. In some cases, the exact same behavior, such as a father distancing from his child during periods of drug addiction, may be judged by a low-income father as a responsible behavior and simultaneously measured by a family worker or academic as an irresponsible behavior. In these cases, a case worker may be better served by praising a father for his responsible choice to distance from the child while simultaneously encouraging him to keep his absence as short as possible rather than judging his absence as a sign of irresponsibility. An academic may be better served by questioning the father about whether he believes that this absence is in his child’s best interest.
Because the fathers in this study did not define responsible fatherhood in terms of traditional breadwinning or primary caregiving tasks, their responsible fathering beliefs and behavior may be invisible to community members, practitioners, policy makers, or researchers. By including their definitions of responsible fatherhood in the academic and public discussion about responsible fatherhood, we can assure that the wide-spread definition reflects the beliefs of some of society’s most vulnerable fathers.