How Fatherhood Works

What does the modern dad do?

Today's dads spend more time with their kids than in previous generations.
Today's dads spend more time with their kids than in previous generations.
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Two of the quintessential dad activities that have persisted in the American cultural mindset for decades are mowing the lawn and playing catch. For many families, those images still ring true, with modern dads remaining the go-to sports facilitators, whereas moms more often regiment housework and homework [source: Cullen and Grossman]. In addition, dads with the option engage more with sons than daughters [source: Gray and Anderson]. But the laundry list of other domestic duties and kid interactions that men take on has certainly lengthened since women entered the workforce en masse in the 1970s.

For starters, today's dads spend far more time hanging out with their kids than their paternal predecessors did. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, working wives provide just 17 minutes more childcare per day than working husbands, which amounts to a three-fold increase in paternal participation since 1965 [source: Konigsberg]. Meanwhile, the specific household chores husbands and wives take on still split into stereotypical pink and blue territory. A 2005 study published in the journal Sex Roles surveyed same-sex and heterosexual couples about who does what around the home. Predictably, hetero husbands mowed the lawn, took out the trash and drove the family car, and their wives tended to grocery shopping, ironing and laundry [source: Solomon, Rothblum and Balsam]. Interestingly, homosexual couples in the same study divvied up the tasks more evenly, regardless of which partner earned more money.

Where employed moms and dads are beginning to meet in the middle, in addition to the childcare hours they put in, is the stress of striking a work-life balance. A common complaint among career-minded moms, the work-life tug of war has become a salient issue for husbands as well. A 2008 survey from the National Study of the Changing Workforce found, for the first time, that employed fathers actually experience more career-family conflict than working mothers [source: Harrington, Deusen and Humberd].

Perhaps because of that job stress, fathers are slightly more likely to take a backseat as disciplinarians. A 2005 study on couple conflict conducted at George Mason University noted that, while different fathers may see themselves as more or less authoritarian than their spouses, mothers almost always considered themselves the more authoritarian parents [source: Winsler, Madigan and Aquilino]. Nevertheless, when it comes to enforcing family rules, dads are more consistent and systematic in laying down the law [source: Cullen and Grossman].

But if Margaret Mead was right, and fatherhood is more a product of human society than biological necessity, do dads make any difference in children's lives?