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Charting Parenthood: A Statistical Portrait of Fathers and Mothers in America

Publication Date


The great majority of Americans will become parents at some point in their lives. The statistics presented in this volume suggest that for the vast majority of parents, raising children is a central focus of their lives.

But how much do we know about the experience of parenting in America today, about the decisions and actions of fathers and mothers, even about the planning (or lack thereof) that precedes conception and childbearing? Where previous efforts have focused largely on the experiences of women and mothers, Charting Parenthood greatly expands our understanding in these areas by bringing men systematically into the picture and offering the best available data that include both men and women, fathers and mothers, for more than 40 indicators of parenting, fertility, and family formation. When men and women are both considered we find that, in some critical areas, their views and experiences diverge, while in other areas there is surprising agreement.

The data also provide important insights into the value men place on family life and childrearing, and on the multiple contributions that fathers can make to the lives of children. These insights suggest that many men have a deep commitment to raising children in the context of marriage, and that substantial percentages of fathers are deeply and regularly involved in play, discipline, and primary caregiving. For example:

  • Most fathers who live with their children participate regularly in some kind of leisure or play activity with them. While mothers are more likely to do "quiet" activities (reading a book or doing a puzzle, for example), fathers are more likely to play an outdoor game or sports activity. Very high levels of both fathers and mothers report talking at least once a week with their children about their family.
  • Substantial percentages of fathers who live with their children are engaged in monitoring their children's daily activities and in setting limits on these activities. For example, 61 percent set limits on what television programs their children are allowed to watch.
  • Men are much more likely than women to believe that two parents are more effective at raising children than one parent alone.
  • More than one in five young children in two-parent families have their father as the primary caregiver when the mother is at work, attending school, or looking for work.
  • While 40 percent of children whose fathers live outside the home have no contact with them, the other 60 percent had contact an average of 69 days in the last year.

We highlight below some of the key findings in each of the three major sections of this volume: parenting, family formation, and fertility. Unless otherwise specified in this summary, "parents" refers to mothers or fathers that live with their children.


The Value of Raising Children.  Americans place great personal value on raising children. Most adults, whether or not they are parents, believe that watching children grow up is life's greatest joy (78 percent of men and 83 percent of women in 1994).

Parental Warmth and Affection.  Very high percentages of parents reported showing their children frequent warmth and affection, with 87 percent of mothers and 73 percent of fathers reporting that they hugged their children or showed them physical affection at least once a day. Similarly high percentages reported telling their children daily that they love them.

Time and Activities With Children.  The vast majority of mothers and fathers report sharing responsibility with each other for playing with their children, with mothers less likely than fathers to report that playing was a shared responsibility. There are, however, domains in which mothers and fathers tend to lead. Mothers are more likely to engage children in activities like board games, puzzles, and looking at books; while fathers are more likely to play sports or do outdoor activities with children. Mothers are also more likely to be highly involved in their children's schools, perhaps reflecting different employment patterns and work hours between mothers and fathers. Adolescents also report that they are more likely to attend a religious observance with their mother than their father.

Setting Limits and Administering Discipline.  Both mothers and fathers are substantially involved in setting limits for their children in various areas, with mothers somewhat more likely than fathers to report setting limits for their children on how much television they can watch (48 percent of mothers and 40 percent of fathers); on what programs they can watch (71 percent of mothers and 61 percent of fathers); and on who their children can spend time with (51 percent of mothers and 40 percent of fathers). The vast majority of mothers and fathers report sharing responsibility with each other for disciplining children, with mothers less likely than fathers to report that discipline was a shared responsibility.

Daily Time With Children.  Children generally spend more time with their mothers than their fathers on any given day, possibly reflecting higher levels of employment among fathers than mothers. In two-parent families, this time difference is not terribly large: children ages 12 and under spend on average 2 hours and 21 minutes a day with their mothers, compared to 1 hour and 46 minutes with their fathers. In single-parent families, in contrast, children spend about one and a quarter hours a day with their mothers, compared to less than half an hour with their fathers, presumably reflecting the fact that more children in such families live with single mothers than fathers.

One Parent Versus Two.  Men and women differ on whether one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together. In 1994, 42 percent of women agreed that one parent can bring up a child just as effectively as two parents together, compared to just 26 percent of men. Interestingly, mothers and fathers were about as likely as nonparents to agree, though in neither case did a majority believe that one parent could bring up a child as effectively as two parents together. As public debate continues on issues related to single parenthood, it would be both interesting and helpful to obtain more recent data on this question.

Primary Care by Fathers.  In 1996, almost one in five children ages birth to five (18 percent) had their fathers as their primary caregivers while their mothers were working, attending school, or looking for work. Such father care was more common for children in two-parent families than for those raised by a single mothers. The likelihood that a father provided primary care also varied by the father's educational level, with college-educated fathers much less likely to provide such care.

Physical Abuse of Children.  A small proportion of parents self-report ever having physically abused their children, defined as having hit the child with a fist or kicked the child, thrown the child or knocked them down, choked or burned the child, or used a knife or gun against the child (6 percent of mothers and 3 percent of fathers).

Contact with Nonresident Parent.  Most children with a parent who lives apart from them have at least some contact with that parent: 60 percent had contact with a nonresident father and 78 percent had contact with a nonresident mother in 1997. These children were in contact an average of 69 days with their fathers and 86 days with their mothers over the course of a year.

Family Formation

Marriage.  The percentage of men and women who are married declined modestly between 1991 and 2001. This trend was also evident among parents: 92 percent of resident fathers were married in 1991, compared to 88 percent in 2001; 75 percent of resident mothers were married in 1991, compared to 72 percent in 2001.

Poor men and women were the least likely of any income group to be married, with the proportion married increasing as income increases. For example, 41 percent of poor men were married in 2001, compared to 66 percent of men with incomes at three or more times the poverty level. The marriage gap was even wider for women. Only about one in every three poor women is married, while about two of every three women with incomes at three or more times the poverty are married. This difference undoubtedly reflects both the more advantaged backgrounds of those who marry, and the advantages of having multiple earners in the family that marriage can bring. The percentage of poor men and women who are married has also been declining over the decade.

Divorce.  The vast majority of men and women who were married in 1996 had never been divorced (81 percent of men and 82 percent of women). Between 1990 and 1996, the percentage of ever-married adults who divorced remained about the same among men and declined modestly for women. The likelihood of divorce among ever-married men differs little by poverty status. Among ever-married women, however, poor women are much more likely to have been divorced than more affluent women.

About half of all men and women agreed with the statement that "divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can't seem to work out their marriage problems." Only 20 percent of men and 12 percent of women thought that parents who don't get along should stay together when there are children in the family. Women's views on this question did not vary according to whether or not they were married or had children. In contrast, fathers were more likely than men who were childless to think parents should stay together for the children's sake.

Cohabitation.  While marriage has declined slightly, cohabitation has increased. Eleven percent of unmarried men cohabited in 1991, rising to 13 percent in 2001. During the same period, the percentage of unmarried women who were cohabiting increased from 8 percent to 11 percent. Cohabitation is more common among poor men and women, declining markedly at higher income levels. Overall, 40 percent of all cohabiting relationships involve parents with children in the home.


Birth Rates.  Overall, birth rates among men and women have declined modestly since 1980. However, this modest decline was not consistent across age groups. Between 1980 and 1999, birth rates among men and women at older ages (ages 30 and older) have increased, while birth rates among female teens have declined.

Age at First Birth.  One in three females had their first birth in their teens, with females three times as likely to be teen parents than males (33 percent compared to 11 percent in 1992). In contrast, almost half of males reported that their first birth occurred after age 25, compared to one-quarter of females.

Premarital Births.  The percentage of adults ages 18 to 59 who had a premarital birth prior to their first marriage is slightly higher among women than men: 19 percent compared to 15 percent in 1992 (the most recent year for which data are available for both men and women). This gender gap is much wider for younger adults. Women ages 18 through 24 are more than five times as likely as men in the same age group to have a premarital birth (21 percent compared to 4 percent). In general, poor adults were more likely than other adults to have had a premarital birth.

Age at First Sexual Intercourse.  Among adults ages 18 to 59 in 1992, 55 percent of men and 43 percent of women reported having their first sexual intercourse before age 18. (These percentages may well have changed in ensuing years.) Age at first sex varies tremendously by education. Women college graduates are much less likely to report having had sex before age 18 than women without a high school education (21 percent compared to 67 percent). The gap for men is similar, though less dramatic - 39 percent and 64 percent.

Contraceptive Use.  Younger adults are more likely than older adults to report using any method of contraception at first sex, indicating that contraceptive use at first sex has increased over time. For both males and females, contraceptive use at first sex increases with educational attainment.


This pathbreaking report brings together important information on fathers and mothers, including many new analyses produced specifically for the report. While available data leave important gaps in our understanding of these issues, federal statistical agencies are making important efforts to fill many of those gaps. Even with current limitations, however, the report extends our understanding of fatherhood in particular and parenting as a whole, and provides a hint of what might be accomplished in the future.