The Changing American Family and the Evolving Concept of Fatherhood

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April 27, 2016
Today's Fathers

This week, the LBJ Presidential Library and The University of Texas at Austin are hosting a historic event exploring the lessons and legacy of the Vietnam War. The war’s impact on U.S. foreign policy, Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, and American culture is unquestionable.

As the war came to an end in 1975, soldiers coming home returned to a changing America and a changing American family. The United States was undergoing a major shift from the structural family norms of the preceding century, becoming more open and accepting of different family dynamics.

In the 1970s, two-thirds of families thought it was better if fathers were breadwinners and mothers homemakers

Family views on the roles of men and women have changed greatly. In the 1970s, two-thirds of families thought it was better if fathers were breadwinners and mothers homemakers, whereas, in 2014, less than one-third of families had this view.1

There has been a shift in marriage trends, with overall marriage rates declining over the past fifty years. Today just over 50 percent of Americans are married as compared to 72 percent in the 1960s.2 The number of children born to unmarried mothers has increased significantly. In 2014, 40.3 percent of children were born to unmarried parents, compared to less than 10 percent throughout the 1960s.3 Cohabitation among parents has become much more common, now accounting for 58 percent of all births outside of marriage.4

Changing norms for women have also affected family structures and dynamics. No-fault divorce laws were adopted beginning with California in 1969 and then spread to all 50 states.During the 1960s and 1970s, legal access to birth control including oral contraceptives became increasingly available, and in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.6 These cultural changes created new opportunities for women and led to an increased presence in the labor market, doubling from 30.3 million in the 1970s to 72.7 million in the mid-2000s.7

Research shows that fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives has many benefits

As family dynamics changed, however, most of America continued to view fathers only as breadwinners, neglecting to understand and value the important role they can play as caregivers to their children. A growing body of research shows that fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives has many benefits. High-quality father involvement and support are associated with positive child outcomes, such as decreased delinquency and behavioral problems, improved cognitive development, increased educational attainment, and better psychological well-being.8

Historically social programs have been geared almost exclusively towards mothers and children, but now there are a growing number of new programs targeted specifically at fathers,” says Dr. Cynthia Osborne, policy professor and director of CFRP. “Today, federal and state policymakers recognize that dads are more than a paycheck or child support payment and that supporting them as active participants also supports the children.

Fatherhood programs have now evolved from a narrow focus on financial stability and support to a more balanced agenda that emphasizes healthy relationships, parenting skills, and father involvement. Though the programs take a variety of approaches towards achieving these ends, they share the common goal of ensuring that fathers are positively involved in their children’s lives.

American families have indeed changed dramatically since the Vietnam War-era and continue to be dynamic today. Recognizing the importance of the role of the father is one way to support them.

Dr. Cynthia Osborne and her team at her policy research group, the Child and Family Research Partnership (CFRP) at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, are currently working with the state of Texas to develop a comprehensive approach to supporting fathers and their children.

More about CFRP’s research on fatherhood is available here


1 Cotter, D. & Hermsen, J. (2014). Brief: Back on Track? The Stall and Rebound in Support for Women’s New Roles in Work and Politics, 1977-2012. Council on Contemporary Families. Retrieved from: 
2 Taylor, P., Parker, K., Coh, D., Passel, J., Livingston, G., (2011) Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married – A Record Low. Pew Research Center. Social & Demographic Trends. Retrieved from: 
3 Child Trends Databank. (2015). Births to unmarried women. Retrieved from 
4 Curtin, S.C., Ventura, S.J., & Martinez, G.M. (2014). Recent Declines in Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief No. 162, August 2014. Retrieved from: 
5 Katz, S.N. (1994). Historical Perspective and Current Trends in the Legal Process of Divorce. Children and Divorce 4(1). Retrieved from 
6 Our Bodies Ourselves. “A Brief History of Birth Control in the U.S.” Retrieved from 
7 United States Census Bureau (2014). How Do We Know? America’s Changing Labor Force. Retrieved from: 
8 Carlson, M.J. & Magnuson, K. (2011) Low-Income Fathers’ Influence on Children. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 635(95) 95-116.; Carlson, M.J., McLanahan, S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2007) Fathers’ Involvement and Young Children’s Behavior in Fragile Families. Extended Abstract.; Carlson, M.J., McLanahan, S. (2009) Fathers in Fragile Families. Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. Working Paper WP09-14-FF.; Harris, K.M., Furstenberg, F.F. & Marmer, J.K. (1998). Paternal involvement with adolescents in intact families: The influence of fathers over the life course. Demography. 35 (2), 201-216.; Carlson, M. J. (2006), Family Structure, Father Involvement, and Adolescent Behavioral Outcomes. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 137–154.

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