Dads are spending more time with their kids, but family structure matters

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News
Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

America’s dads are spending more time with their kids than in the past. And the increase is especially true of college-educated, partnered, white or Asian dads, per a new analysis of time diary data from the federal government.

But the time spent by dads who live with their kids compared to those who don’t is very different on average. Time diaries suggest fathers who don’t live with their children spent about 36 minutes a week with them, compared to 7.8 hours a week for dads who did live with their children in 2021-2022 data.

In a just-released analysis of different data sets that show fathers’ engagement with their children published Tuesday by the Institute for Family Studies, director of research Wendy Wang says the nearly eight hours U.S. dads spend each week caring for their children at home is an hour more a week than it was two decades ago.

“My goal was to look at what was happening in the past 20 years in terms of father involvement. We know fathers do spend more time with their kids,” said Wang. Whether they live with their children or not, college-educated and married dads are “more likely to be highly involved,” she told the Deseret News.

“I was a little surprised to see a big divide in terms of college versus noncollege and married versus unmarried,” she added.

“Whether or not fathers live apart from their children has a lot to do with fathers’ marital status,” Wang wrote in the report. “The majority of never-married fathers (61%) as well as divorced fathers (53%) live separately from their children,” compared with 36% of cohabiting fathers and only 11% of married fathers.

Wang said married fathers include those who are married to someone besides the child’s mother.

Despite overall increases in father-child time together, there are a lot of differences, too, based on many factors. And not all fathers spend more time.

Race, education and more

College-educated dads with minor children at home average 10.2 hours a week on caring for their children in some way, which is two hours more than in 2003. In that time period, married fathers’ time with their children increased from 6.8 hours a week to 8 hours a week in 2020-2021. Cohabiting fathers’ time rose to 6.7 hours a week from an average of 5.1 hours in that time.

Compared to 20 years ago, Asian fathers spend two more hours a week caring for their children, while white fathers spend 1.8 more hours a week. Black fathers are spending about 20 minutes more a week on child care activities.

But “parenting time has been stagnant or even in decline for other dads,” Wang wrote. Fathers with no college degree average 5.9 hours a week doing child care activities, a decrease of 0.3 hours from 2003. Hispanic fathers are spending about 1.2 hours less on caregiving activities than they did 20 years ago.

The time single fathers spend with their children has not changed noticeably in those two decades, Wang found.

Growing gaps

Differences are widening based on categories like education, marital status and race/ethnicity. College-educated dads spend almost twice as much time with their children as fathers without a college degree — 10.2 hours a week versus 5.9 hours a week. In 2003, the difference between the two father groups was less than 2 hours. The gap is biggest in terms of interactive activities like playing, talking and reading to children, and in tasks related to basic needs like diapering and feeding children.

The U.S. Census Bureau said the share of kids living in homes without a present father shrunk from 20.6 million children in 2012 to 18.4 million in 2022. The share of children living with a single mother but no father dropped from 24.4% to 21.5% in that decade. The share living with both parents increased to 70% from 68%, as well, which Wang said in a phone interview was “good news.”

Why an engaged father matters

Wang said she recently attended a fatherhood conference where experts were talking about the fatherhood crisis and looking for ways to help fathers spend more time with their children and be more involved. Active fatherhood is a form of preventive care in helping children avoid challenges, she said.

As the Deseret News has previously reported, “Studies say kids who have a good dad are more likely to stay in school and less likely to go to jail. They tend to grow up and get good jobs and form healthy relationships. Girls with involved dads are less likely to become pregnant as teens, the boys less likely to have behavior problems. That’s all compared to children who have absent or unengaged fathers.”

According to the National Center for Health Statistics data, a slightly smaller share of fathers are living apart from at least one child at 23% in 2017-2019, compared to 27% in 2006-2008.

Wang reported that fathers with no college degree are three times more likely to live apart from their children, at 27% compared to the 10% with a degree who are nonresidential dads.

More than 4 in 10 fathers who live apart from their children say they saw or visited them at least once a week (44%). Black nonresident fathers are more likely (59%) than white (39%) or Hispanic fathers (35%) to see their children that often. The study also found that college-educated fathers are more engaged with their nonresident children than noncollege-educated fathers (56% versus 42%).


Wang said she was surprised to learn, though, that fathers who are married or cohabiting are less likely than divorced or never-married fathers to see their nonresident children on a regular basis. She wrote in the report that the fact could be linked to the relationship they have with the mother of the children who don’t live with them. Their responsibilities to a new family may also play a part. She noted that those fathers are also less likely to say they are a good parenting team with the mother of the children with whom they don’t live, compared to the men who were never married or who are divorced and didn’t remarry.

Among other findings:

  • Married fathers spend twice as much time doing “managerial” child care tasks like planning activities or chauffeuring children, compared to cohabiting fathers, at 1.5 hours a week versus 0.6 hours.

  • Asian fathers spend 4.7 hours a week taking care of their children’s basic needs, compared with 2.8 hours for white fathers, 2.3 hours for Black fathers and 1.9 hours for Hispanic fathers.

  • More than 70% of fathers who don’t live with their kids say they pay child support regularly. Race and ethnicity don’t make a difference in the share who pay child support, but other factors do. College-educated, married or divorced nonresident dads are more likely than other nonresident dads to make regular child support payments.

For the analysis, Wang used the America Time Use Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth.