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Bradford Wilcox
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Bradford Wilcox

Faith makes a good dad

By Charlotte Crystal

Catholic and evangelical Christian fathers spend a lot of one-on-one time with their children, making them the best dads studied by a University of Virginia sociologist and expert on religion and families.

“My research shows that evangelical Protestant and Catholic fathers are, on average, more involved with their children than fathers who have no religious affiliation,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at U.Va. “Evangelical Protestant fathers, including Southern Baptists, are very involved with their children, which I found surprising, given their tendency to embrace traditional gender attitudes.”

Previous research has shown that fathers are nearly as important as mothers in guiding children through the challenges of childhood and adolescence. But what makes some fathers more likely than others to focus on their children? Supporters of evangelical Christian denominations often argue that a father’s faith can motivate a dad to be there for his kids. Wilcox’s research suggests they may be right.

Wilcox studied fathers who lived with their children (ages 5-18), and who participated in the National Survey of Families and Households in 1987-88 and 1992-94. Wilcox’s analysis of that data resulted in his study, “Religion, Convention, and Paternal Involvement,” which appears in the just-released, August 2002 issue of Journal of Marriage and Family.

Wilcox focused on three measures of paternal involvement. The first was one-on-one interaction. The fathers reported leisure time spent with the child, working on a project or playing with the child, private talks, and help with reading or homework. The second was family dinners. Fathers were asked how many evenings a week the whole family had dinner together. Finally, the dads reported on their participation in youth-related activities. They were asked how many hours in the average week they participated as an advisor, coach or leader of school activities, community youth groups, sports activities or religious youth groups.

Fathers then were divided into four groups. The evangelical Protestant fathers were from Southern Baptist, Assembly of God, Pentecostal, Missionary Alliance, Christian Reformed and a number of other fundamentalist and evangelical churches. The mainline Protestant fathers were from Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist or Congregational churches. The final two groups were Catholic dads, and fathers who identified themselves as unaffiliated with a particular church.

So how did these dads measure up?

The results put evangelical Christian dads at the top or near the top in each area. The measure of one-on-one interaction showed that evangelical dads were more involved than unaffiliated dads and mainline Protestant dads. Catholic dads fell somewhere in between.

A count of family dinners showed evangelical Protestant dads, in the average year, had roughly 27 more dinners with their families than unaffiliated fathers. Catholic and mainline Protestant fathers fell in between evangelical Protestant and unaffiliated fathers.

Both evangelical Protestant and Catholic dads were more involved in youth activities than unaffiliated dads, with Catholic dads coming out on top. “Evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches may sponsor more youth-related activities than other churches, providing a broader range of activities for fathers and children to share,” Wilcox suggested.

Sally Gallagher, associate professor of sociology at Oregon State University, agreed:

“Wilcox’s analysis demonstrates that religious culture or subculture matters; that the content of religious belief and practice does indeed make a difference in men’s involvement as parents. Sociologists interested in understanding families must now do more to account for how the content of religious beliefs, communities, and institutions encourage and reinforce certain family practices.”


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