This was originally published by the Institute of Family Studies.

It feels like nearly every week we hear some new statistic about how marriage and family formation are in historic decline in the United States and around the world. Last year a headline from the Pew Research Center announced, “A Record-High Share of 40-year-Olds in the U.S. Have Never Been Married.” Then, two months ago, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics issued a release entitled, “U.S. Fertility Drops to Another Historic Low.”

As reported by my colleague, Brad Wilcox, the combined result of these trends is that America has just crossed a historic threshold where, of adults aged 18-55, there is now a greater share of single adults with no children than there are married adults with children.

Undergirding these trends of delays and declines in family formation are patterns of reluctant adulthood among many young people. In fact, there is mounting evidence that fewer teens are entering their 20-something years feeling prepared to assume the responsibilities and commitments of adulthood. With a longer marriage horizon stretching out before them, many young people and their parents are framing young adulthood as a sort of “extended adolescence” in the modern life course.

Experts are finding that parents today often shield their children from the responsibilities of young adulthood for much longer than previous generations. Consequently, many of today’s young adults are less willing or able to take on responsibilities that are characteristic of their age and necessary for building a family.

Psychologist Jean Twenge was one of the first to document how contemporary teens are much slower to take on the responsibilities of young adulthood in her groundbreaking book “iGen.” According to Dr. Twenge, when it comes to hitting the developmental milestones of young adulthood, “18-year-olds now look like 14-year-olds.”

Unfortunately, there is solid data to support her conclusion, at least for a growing share of young people. Last year, the Institute for Family Studies released a study using data from the highly regarded Monitoring the Future Study that found significant declines in the percentage of two different milestones and foundational rites of passage into young adulthood: high-school seniors who work a part-time job during the school year and those who have their driver’s license.

The study’s author, policy analyst Thomas O’Rourke, concluded, “Today’s youth are shielded for too long from important responsibilities they need to mature, and, as a result, fail to develop the skills and capacities necessary to flourish as young adults. Because today’s teens are not conditioned to take on adulthood, the prospect of confronting the most significant responsibilities of adulthood—such as a lifelong commitment to love another person—may feel particularly weighty and out of reach.”

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Declining responsibilities of American teens, 1990-2021 Courtesy, Institute for Family Studies, "The Paradox of Independence and Family Life," by Thomas O’Rourke, May 18, 2023

Another study from the Pew Research Center using Census Bureau data found that young adults in the United States are now reaching key life milestones later than in the past. This study specifically found that young adults who are 21 are less likely than their predecessors a few decades ago to have reached five frequently cited milestones of adulthood: having a full-time job, being financially independent, living on their own, getting married and having a child.

By the time they are 25, today’s young adults are somewhat closer to their predecessors in 1980 on two of these milestones: having a full-time job (73% vs. 66%) and financial independence (63% vs. 60%). However, young adults in their mid-20s still lag behind previous generations on milestones that relate more to family than finances (marriage: 63% vs. 22%; parenthood: 39% vs. 17%).

Fathers foster independence

So, what do these trends have to do with Father’s Day? Simply put, research shows that most fathers are particularly skilled at fostering independence in their children. And these social trends point to why children need the positive influence of their father in their lives more than ever. Years of lived experience, backed by parenting research, teach us that the effective nurturing of children requires not only the capacity to “hold them close,” but also the ability to “let them go” — something fathers seem particularly apt in preparing children to do.

Research based on observations of mothers’ and fathers’ different psychological dispositions and behaviors in parenting has consistently found that both mothers and fathers influence multiple aspects of child development, but they do so through different processes.

These studies show that fathers tend to be particularly attuned to developing children’s physical, emotional and intellectual independence — in everything from children making their own lunches and tying their own shoes to doing household chores and making decisions for themselves after they have left home. Fathers are also more likely than mothers to encourage children to take risks while also ensuring safety and security, thus helping children develop confidence, navigate new transitions, and bravely confront unfamiliar situations.

It is exactly this fostering of independence that is needed in greater supply among the rising generation. Paradoxically, our culture today is one where too many young people are unfortunately under-nurtured in fractured families, while others are over-nurtured by helicopter parenting and prolonged sheltering.

One of the ways to make family formation more appealing to young adults is to promote more of the building blocks of sustainable relationships, including maturity, competence and personal responsibility. As O’Rourke concluded, “To make marriage and childrearing more attainable for young adults, parents must allow (or encourage) their children to take on the responsibilities of young adulthood. For marriage and family life to prosper, young people must become more independent, not less.”

Other positive influences of fathers

The benefits of loving and involved fathers go far beyond simply fostering independence. Research shows that fathers are much more than just a “second parent” in a child’s life. Involved fathers can bring numerous benefits to their children’s lives that no other person is as likely to bring. Too often as a society, we minimize the virtues and strengths of fathers and the unique role they can play in their children’s lives, despite the significant and growing body of research that shows otherwise.

For example, in an article in Marriage and Family Review, professor William Jeynes reported a meta-analysis of 34 studies with more than 37,000 participants that found statistically-significant effects highlighting the unique role of fathers in child rearing. Fathering had a statistically significant connection to a number of outcomes, including psychological wellbeing, emotional resilience, improved social relationships, and higher academic achievement. This was true for both boys and girls of different ages.

In a commentary about the study, Jeynes remarked, “Based on the results, a clear theme emerged: while mothers often tested as being more nurturing in their relationship with children, fathers tended to be more involved in preparing children to deal with life.”

“The results also suggest that there is often a balance established when the unique role of the father is combined with the distinct role of the mother,” the researcher added. “Granted, there is clearly some overlap in the advantages provided by father and mother monitoring. Nevertheless, mothers consistently demonstrated higher average levels of patience and nurturing than did fathers, but fathers tended to have higher expectations of their children than mothers and tended to emphasize the preparatory aspect of child-rearing more than mothers did.”

Fathers play a unique role in the emotional development of their children. When fathers respond to children’s emotional distress, they are more likely to focus on fixing the problem than they are addressing the hurt feelings. This seeming “indifference to the emotion” may not appear nurturing but becomes very useful as children grow older, as children tend to seek out and share things with their dads precisely because of their measured, problem-solving responses. The “indifference” actually becomes a strategic form of nurturing in emotionally charged situations.

Fathers’ also make unique contributions to children’s cognitive development, with an involved father identified as the strongest predictor of college graduation. This is partly because involved fathers are more likely to help with homework and provide financial support. But it’s also the case that involved fathers effectively monitor and guide children’s actions, helping them avoid behaviors that might negatively impact school achievement.

As summarized by a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, “Fathers often push achievement while mothers stress nurturing, both of which are important to healthy development.”

Father involvement has also been proven to be a strong protection against delinquent and criminal behaviors in their children’s lives that continue into adulthood. For boys, the mere presence of a father in the home predicts less delinquent behavior.

Research also shows that while mothers tend to intervene and correct children more frequently than fathers, when fathers discipline, they tend to more often “hold the line.” Fathers’ willingness to confront their children and enforce discipline appears to engender a sense of authority and boundary setting that can shape children’s sense of stability, order and self-control.

In fact, fathers’ distinct ways of expressing encouragement, giving instruction and providing assistance seems to provide the right mix of engagement and monitoring that strengthens children’s academic achievement and helps them steer clear of various kinds of trouble.

It should also be pointed out that research also shows that most fathers continue to play a significant role as a provider and protector in their children’s lives. Fathers are still the primary earners in most married families. And it is families without fathers who are most likely to suffer the challenging consequences of poverty.

As with all research, there are limitations to what can be concluded. First, there is tremendous variation within gender — not all fathers are going to parent the ways that most studies find to be typical.

And while parenting behavior is influenced by biological processes, these biological processes happen within a social and cultural ecology that profoundly shape the way mothers and fathers relate to their children. Also, acknowledging the unique roles of parents can sometimes be used to distort the ways that both mothers and fathers provide, protect, and nurture in meaningful ways or limit an appreciation for the diverse ways families honor differences while strengthening equal partnership between spouses.

Of course, none of these research findings diminish the unique shaping influence mothers have on their children and the heroic efforts of single mothers to raise children without a father in the home. A two-parent family is not always possible, and in such circumstances grandparents, extended family and others can lend support when needed.


Many single moms are the first to acknowledge the unique role their child’s father could play or does play in his or her life. Children need their dad and it’s important to facilitate that relationship as much as possible.

There is also no better time than Father’s Day to express heartfelt thanks to grandfathers, uncles, schoolteachers, youth coaches and other men who step in when a father is not present in a child’s life. Good men who give their time to children and teens in these situations can have a meaningful impact on the trajectory of their lives — sometimes making the difference between a child flourishing or floundering on the path to becoming a successful adult.

This Father’s Day, let’s celebrate the unique and valuable ways that most father’s contribute to the growth and flourishing of their children. Simply put, dads matter! Renewing and deepening our appreciation of the value of fatherhood in our society will bear much meaningful fruit. In fact, it may be one of the keys to assuring that we have a new generation of fathers to celebrate in the years to come.

Jason S. Carroll is the family initiative director at BYU’s Wheatley Institute and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Jenet Jacob Erickson, a fellow of the Wheatley Institute and a professor in Religious Education at Brigham Young University also contributed to this article.

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