Public Policy Issues

Child Care (Parental and Non-parental Care)

This article, which examines child care-related policies as they affect fathers , is a chapter in FIRA's  Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement.


An area of increasing interest among researchers and policy makers in recent years is the changing role of fathers and the explicit desire to support father involvement as a way to enhance children's health and well-being. Although scholarly interest in fatherhood emerged in the early 1970s and 80s, the bulk of studies and policy work on fatherhood is very recent - much of it dating from the mid-1990s onwards.

This article is a chapter in the recently released Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement which is a collaborative document which has benefited from the ideas and suggestions of others. It is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC - CURA). For a full copy of this document see our home page.

Child Care (Parental and Non-parental Care)

Specific Issues and Policies

In this section, we are particularly interested in the degree to which our society expects mothers and fathers to play an equal role with respect to child care and parenting in family life. Because employment makes specific demands on mothers’ and fathers’ time, the integration of non-parental care with that of parents is integral to well-functioning families. The ways in which this integration takes place and incorporates the involvement of both mothers and fathers together with non-parental care can potentially benefit both children and their parents. Further, if the expectation is that both mothers and fathers can and do play an equal role with respect to parenting and child care at all ages, how is this reflected, supported and promoted within institutional practices in the workplace, early childhood programs and education systems, mental health and healthcare systems, and social policy?

A distinction should be made between parenting and child care. Parenting requires a major commitment that goes beyond the types of care that can be shared with others such as teachers, childcare providers, relatives and other family members. This commitment includes the time that is spent directly with children and the time and energy that is invested in planning, problem-solving, discussing concerns, and soliciting advice. The level of responsibility and burden of decision-making that is associated with parenting makes this type of “child care” distinct, both qualitatively and quantitatively, from the more tangible and concrete forms of daily child care that can be shared with others. This is a subtle but important distinction. (Statistics Canada, 1994)

We will be referring, within this section, to both parental care of children of all ages (i.e., the provision of the necessities of life, nurturance and daily care, and those dimensions of parenting that include such aspects as emotional connection, future planning, and moral decision making), and quality non-parental care that serves as a parental support, rather than as a replacement for parent care, at earlier ages. It is our premise that good non-parental child care can provide, in addition to care for children, instrumental and emotional support for parents in the form of respite care, information about children’s needs and development, and an opportunity to connect with other parents.

While fathers’ individual choices (and the choices made jointly by mothers and fathers), as well as individual subjectivity, influence the degree to which some men are more or less engaged in parental care of their children, this inventory is concerned predominately with the ways in which policy and practice affect both the choices available to fathers and the ways in which some of these choices are made. Social policy can play a role in both promoting fathers’ time with their children and in promoting fathers’ parental involvement in children’s lives. Fathers’ time with their children can be enhanced by policy initiatives and workplace practices which allow for a greater degree of flexibility in scheduling, increased ability for fathers to take time away from work for child care and parenting responsibilities, and explicit inclusion of fathers’ needs in the institutional practices of child care providers and schools. Attending to the dimension of fathers’ parental involvement suggests the importance of promoting gender equality and addressing changing gender roles on a broader societal scale, and utilizing a construction of fatherhood within social policy that incorporates a caring role over and above economic responsibilities, such as has been done in Sweden in recent years (Hobson & Morgan, 2002).

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

There are several reasons to be interested in the involvement of fathers in the care of their children at all ages. Fagan & Palm (2004) highlight some of the research that suggests that, when the quality of paternal involvement in children’s lives is high, the potential developmental benefits for children who live with their fathers as well as for those whose fathers are not resident parents, can include:
$ Development in the areas of “sex roles, cognitive abilities, school achievement, social competence, and emotional well-being”(p.37)
$ Feelings of closeness and well-being; and
$ Reduction of externalizing behavioural problems.

Of equal importance and interest is research which suggests (e.g., Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997, Palkovitz, 2002) that the act of fathering itself is generative and can benefit men in terms of their own development.

Contemporary parenting “culture” acknowledges a close link between paid work and parenting (Daly, 2004). Daly maintains that this close link shifts the discourse of parenting to that of family adaptation to multiple schedules and the negotiation of parenting and household tasks. This shift makes increasing demands on workplace flexibility with respect to schedules and policies to allow for this adaptation (Daly, 2004). In addition, gender practices and ideas of what women and men “should” each be doing as parents influence social discourse and the practice and decisions of individual families (Doucet, 2001). These socialization practices and dominant social discourse tend to encourage a standard for “real” parenting that is associated with women’s practice and for “real” wage work to be associated with men’s practice (Nippert-Eng, 1996).
Trends in the sharing of employment and family responsibilities in Canada since the 1980s suggest that, while men’s employment has maintained relative stability, women have significantly increased their involvement in paid work (Galarneau, 2005). This means that more and more families rely on formal and informal child care, as well as flexibility to allow fathers and mothers to provide care for their children while one or both parents are working or engaged in training or continuing education. Women continue to shoulder much of the responsibility for juggling work and family responsibilities by either working part-time or taking more time away from work for family responsibilities. According to Canadian census data (Statistics Canada, 2004), in 2003, 72% of all women who had children under 16 living at home were in the work force. Sometimes the choice to work part-time, rather than full-time, is based on family and child care responsibilities. In 2003, 13% of women and 0.6% of men working part-time cited caring for children as the reason for this employment status (Statistics Canada, 2004).

Utilizing custom tabulations from the annual Canadian Labour Force Survey, Sauve (2002) looks specifically at the distinctions that can be made with respect to parents who are married or in common-law relationships and those who are not. Employment rates for fathers maintain stability regardless of children’s ages, while mothers’ employment rates increase substantially as children age (Sauve, 2002), further supporting the notion that mothers do most of the adjusting in their employment patterns in order to meet early child care needs. This also suggests that the onus remains on fathers to maintain breadwinner responsibilities when children are younger.

Families headed by a lone-parent clearly make the most demands on parental balancing of employment and child care responsibilities. Interestingly, while both male and female lone-parents have increased in number in Canada since 1990, male lone-parents have increased most dramatically and represent 18.6% of lone-parent families (Galarneau, 2005). It is important to note that the vast majority of lone-parents continue to be mothers, and that census data fail to reflect joint custody situations and the sole-parenting time that is carried out by the other custodial parent. In 2000, 10.7% of lone-parent fathers did not work and 5.7% worked part-time, compared to 22.1% and 17.1% of lone-parent mothers respectively (Galarneau, 2005). They are older, on average, than lone-mothers and fathers living in a couple relationship, and often have only one child. While still earning more than lone-mothers, lone-fathers, particularly those who are young and less educated, have seen a decrease in average income since 1980, in contrast to lone-mothers’ significant increase (Galarneau, 2005).

Based on custom tabulations of the 2000 Canadian Labour Force Survey, Sauve (2002) found that while most fathers and mothers worked a consistent work schedule, roughly one in four fathers (in common-law or marital relationships and lone-parents) worked an average of 10 hours of paid and unpaid overtime per week, and roughly one in five mothers (in common-law or marital relationships and lone-parents) worked an average of 8 hours of paid and unpaid overtime per week. Sometimes overtime work is an expected part of a job, and can be scheduled and planned for. In other cases, overtime responsibilities require particular flexibility with respect to child care arrangements and the family system.

For mothers and fathers, child care work is often over and above paid work hours, although women continue to perform child care activities in greater amounts of time than their male partners, even when fathers are unemployed (Sauve, 2002, Zukewich, 2003). Zukewich (2003) also demonstrates, utilizing Canadian data from the General Social Survey in 1998 that incorporated time use, that a large proportion of time spent in child care activities occurs while the parent is simultaneously engaged in other activities. While employed, married parents spend roughly the same amount of overall time engaged in child care, mothers spend more of their total time in child care activities that do not overlap with other activities than do fathers, 42% compared to 28% (Zukewich, 2003).

Research studying U.S. families suggests that the involvement of fathers in two-parent households as exclusive care providers during the first year of a child’s life is influenced by race or ethnicity and a non-traditional gender-role perspective on the part of the mother. The same research, however, suggests that paternal child care in the first three years of a child’s life is strongly influenced by the flexibility of both mothers’ and fathers’ work schedules (Averett, Gennetain & Peters, 2000). Daly (2004) identifies the isolation and lack of support that stay-at-home parents, both fathers and mothers, receive in a parenting culture that increasingly sees employment outside the home and parenting linked together and the resultant societal view of a decision to stay at home with children as an anomaly. This societal view is particularly strong with respect to fathers, who represent a very small portion of stay-at-home parents. Institutional and community norms about “mothering” and “fathering” can also serve to stigmatize or create obstacles to support networks and social inclusion for fathers who stay home to care for their children (Doucet, 2000).

In many countries (e.g., UK and USA – Hobson & Morgan, 2002) policy initiatives that are designed to facilitate father engagement are geared toward enforcing increased payment of child support, and equating fathering with the financial responsibilities of fatherhood. Scandinavian countries (particularly Sweden and the Netherlands) have been proactive in encouraging father involvement in family care in a more positive way. They have instituted mandatory paid parental leave and policies to institute flexible workplace scheduling and mandatory joint custody, as well as government-paid advertising campaigns designed to emphasize the caring role of fathers over and above the bread-winning role (Bergman & Hobson, 2002, Hobson & Morgan, 2002, Knijn & Selten, 2002). This shift from “cash” to “care” in framing the construction of fatherhood within social policy provides an opportunity to move away from a more punitive view of fatherhood associated with economic responsibilities to a view that incorporates the benefits of fatherhood (Hobson & Morgan, 2002). In fact, we might talk about the value of considering both the ‘cash’ and ‘care’ as important aspects of fatherhood, and parenting in general, and as two roles essential to the well-being of children.

What we have seen then, is that fathers, although still not generally at the level of mothers, are increasing their level of involvement in their children’s lives, and that this involvement is potentially beneficial to both their children and themselves. This involvement may be in the form of direct care for children, or it may be more indirect care such as dropping off and picking up children at child care centres. While good quality child care programs are specifically designed to benefit and enhance children’s development, they also have an opportunity to provide support and education for mothers and fathers. Fagan & Palm (2004) underline the importance of seeing father’s help-seeking behaviour and needs as different from mothers, and therefore encourage early childhood programs to consider adapting their traditional approaches to forming partnerships with mothers to specifically engage fathers. Fathers may be more reluctant to appear to need help or not know what to do, they may be less comfortable in surroundings that incorporate traditionally female nurturing approaches, and may appear to be less interested in learning more about how to care for their children or becoming involved in a partnership with child care providers. In addition to becoming more attuned to the unique ways in which fathers can approach a partnership and learning, early childhood programs can provide an opportunity for men to connect with other fathers to reduce isolation and create potential mentor relationships. Fagan & Palm (2004) suggest that these program directions be carefully evaluated with respect to the nature of short and long-term changes and benefits to children. In addition, they emphasize the important role that early childhood program staff can play in encouraging positive shared parenting for diverse family situations, including separated and divorced families, by their awareness of resources within the community that can provide education and support for such families. Early childhood care and development programs can also serve as a “hook” to engage the broader community in supporting young families, as well as a “hub” for providing services to parents and the broader community (Ball, 2005). These ideas have been viewed as particularly well-suited to services within aboriginal communities (see Section O:Aboriginal Fathers).

The institutional practices of primary, elementary and secondary schools can also be directed more specifically at father inclusion (see Section F: Community Programming and Support, and Institutional Practices for examples of this), with the same view to benefiting children’s development and enhancing father involvement and parent-educator partnerships. As well, recreational programs, health and mental health care programs, and programs provided for physically handicapped children and children with other special needs can be cognisant of the presence of fathers, often on the periphery (dropping off, picking up, observing), and engaging their involvement more intentionally.

Powell (1995) cautions that sensitivity to the following is required when designing programs for fathers:
$ Assumptions about fathers that are made implicitly or explicitly by program staff, including ambivalence to fathers’ involvement.
$ The interdependency of both parents’ involvement in parent programs and the ways in which each can potentially serve to facilitate or block the other’s participation.
$ Congruence between the program’s approach and fathers’ way of addressing problems and relating to others.
$ The influence that fathers’ involvement in parent programs can potentially have on mothers’ involvement.
$ Presenting father roles that are respectful and unique within programs.
$ Providing educational and support materials that are sensitive to race, class and ethnicity of particular groups of fathers.

With a growing number of separated and divorced couples utilizing shared physical custody, the involvement and inclusion of fathers in post-separation/divorce families has changed (Juby, Marcil-Gratton & Le Bourdais, 2004). The types of living arrangements that reflect shared physical custody agreements vary extensively from 50% time with each parent (and daily, weekly or biweekly moves between households) to every other weekend time with one parent and majority time spent with the other. As these parents negotiate arrangements for moving back and forth and sharing custodial decision-making and child care responsibilities, the inclusion of both in the partnership with non-parental care providers and educators becomes even more critical to the support and functioning of these families.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

The experience of Scandinavian countries has suggested the valuable role that media campaigns and proactive policies that encourage fathers’ caring can play. The provision of accessible, affordable, high-quality child care can facilitate the support, education and connection of both mothers and fathers. Programming that specifically addresses the education and potential isolation of fathers who may be less comfortable or less involved in direct child care activities can be beneficial to children and parents (see Section F: Community Programming and Support, and Institutional Practices). Policies that enhance the ability of working parents, including fathers, to flex their working hours to meet family responsibilities, and which provide for paid paternal leave can encourage a view of father involvement as caring activity which is associated with benefits, alongside the responsibilities traditionally associated with financial support.

One area which is perhaps overlooked when carrying out large-scale studies and census surveys, is direct information about fathers’ involvement and views. Often the “parent most knowledgeable” is interviewed for such studies (e.g., the “PMK” in the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth), and this is frequently the mother, or defaults to the mother if both parents are viewed as equally knowledgeable. In these instances then, what is recorded as fathers’ experience and perspective, if anything, is really mothers’ interpretation or view of what fathers are doing. When we know that mothers’ and fathers’ experiences, roles and perspectives are quite likely to be different, it is not beneficial to social scientists or policy-makers to talk about a gender-neutral parent, nor to consider one parent’s perspective on what the other parent is doing as an accurate representation of the other parent’s experience.

While it has been acknowledged for some time that a positive partnership between parents and educators benefits children’s development and learning, these partnerships have typically primarily involved mothers. Different expectations and approaches may be necessary in order to involve fathers in these partnerships. This argument can also be made within the health and mental health care systems, and within those programs which specifically address the needs of children with special needs (see Section P for more on this issue).

Key References

Averett, S.L., Gennetian, L.A. & Peters, H.E. (2000). Patterns and determinants of paternal child care during a child’s first three years of life. Marriage and Family Review, 29, 115-136.
Ball, J. (2005). Early childhood care and development programs as ‘hook’ and ‘hub’ for intersectoral service delivery in First Nations communities. Journal of Aboriginal Health, 2(1), 36-50.
Bergman, H. & Hobson, B. (2002). Compulsory fatherhood: The coding of fatherhood in the Swedish welfare state. In B. Hobson (Ed.), Making men into fathers: Men, masculinities and the social politics of fatherhood (pp. 92-124). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Daly, K. (2004). The changing culture of parenting. Retrieved March 28, 2006 from The Vanier Institute of the Family Web site:
Doucet, A. (2000). ‘There’s a huge gulf between me as a male carer and women’: Gender, domestic responsibility, and the community as an institutional arena. Community, Work & Family, 3, 163-184.
Doucet, A. (2001). “You see the need perhaps more clearly than I have”: Exploring gendered processes of domestic responsibility. Journal of Family Issues, 22, 328-357.
Fagan, J. & Palm, G. (2004). Fathers and early childhood programs. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Learning.
Galarneau, D. (2005). Education and income of lone parents. Perspectives on Labour and Income, 6(12), 5-16.
Hawkins, A.J. & Dollahite, D.C. (1997). Beyond the role-inadequacy perspective of fathering. In A.J. Hawkins & D.C. Dollahite (Eds.), Generative fathering: Beyond deficit perspectives (pp.3-16). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hobson, B. & Morgan, D. (2002). Introduction. In B. Hobson (Ed.), Making men into fathers: Men, masculinities and the social politics of fatherhood (pp.1-21). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Juby, H., Marcil-Gratton, N. & Le Bourdais, C. (2004). When parents separate: Further findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from the Department of Justice Canada Web site:
Knijn, T. & Selten, P. (2002). Transformations of fatherhood: The Netherlands. In B. Hobson (Ed.), Making men into fathers: Men, masculinities and the social politics of fatherhood (pp.168-187). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Nippert-Eng, C.E. (1996). Home and work: Negotiating boundaries through everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Palkovitz, R. (2002). Involved fathering and men's adult development: Provisional balances. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Powell, D. (1995). Including Latino fathers in parent education and support programs. In R. E. Zambrana (Ed.), Understanding Latino families: Scholarship, policy and practice (pp.85- 106). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Sauve, R. (2002). Connections - Tracking the links between jobs and family: Jobs, family and stress among husbands, wives and lone-parents 15-64 from 1990 – 2000. Retrieved March 28, 2006 from The Vanier Institute of the Family Web site:
Statistics Canada (1994). Statistical measurement issues in the field of child care. International Conference on the Measurement and Valuation of Unpaid Work: Proceedings (pp.103- 106). Ottawa, ON: Minister of Industry, Science and Technology.
Statistics Canada (2004). Women in Canada: Work Chapter Updates 2003. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 89F0133XIE. Retrieved January 2006, from
Zukewich, N. (1998). Work, parenthood and the experience of time scarcity. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 89-584-MIE. Available from