Public Policy Issues

Policies Affecting Young Fathers

This article, which examines policies and practices affecting young 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.

Young Fathers. by Donna S. Lero

Specific Issues and Policies

Young (adolescent) fathers in Canada are challenged on a number of fronts. Often they are unmarried, may not continue to be romantically or practically involved in the life of the mother of their child, or may not be aware of the fact that they have fathered a child. Issues of poverty often overlap with adolescent parenting. The public institutions that are involved in these young men’s lives may include the social welfare system, schools, job training programs, and/or the legal (youth justice) system. While no current reliable estimates exist of the number of young or adolescent Canadian fathers, an approximation can be made by noting the number of pregnancies and births to mothers under 20 years of age, which in 2001 was reported to be 37,622 pregnancies (30.6 per 1,000 women under 20 years) and 16,572 live births (13.5 per 1,000) (Statistics Canada, 2005). It has been noted that while the rate of teen pregnancies and births has been decreasing over time in Canada, the proportion of young mothers who keep their babies, rather than placing them for adoption is quite high, perhaps providing greater impetus for considering the potential involvement of young fathers.
Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

As is the case for teenaged mothers, teenaged fathers are faced with the responsibilities of parenthood at a time in their lives when they are also engaged in completing their formal education and/or job-training, and have most often not yet secured steady or long-term employment that would allow them to reasonably provide for their children’s needs over the long term. With respect to addressing the needs of the child and the needs of both parents, support that allows for the completion of formal education and job-training and that encourages responsible involvement in the provision of care for children is most likely to predict a more positive long-term outcome for both children and parents. Parenting and pre-natal classes do not always consider the needs of both adolescent mothers and fathers, nor do they necessarily provide education and support appropriate to the distinctive roles that they each are taking on. Some provinces provide counsellors who work with teen parents, male and female, to facilitate decision-making and planning during pregnancy (e.g. Saskatchewan’s Teen and Young Parent Workers, who are located at local Community Resources and Employment offices).

Young fathers are less likely to have broad experience in caring for or being with young children. Their needs will often differ significantly from the needs of young mothers with respect to parent education and support, given that young women have more often been socialized to interact with infants and young children and anticipate some of their needs. Parenting programs and institutional support of young fathers do not always take into account these gender-based differences. In addition, programs that are designed for older fathers who might more typically be in stable, longer term relationships and have engaged in planned pregnancies, as well as generally being more established financially, may not meet the needs of adolescent fathers.

Adolescent fathers may be engaged in completing their education, may be unemployed or marginally employed, and may be supported by other family members or provincial social services. They are likely, therefore, to have limited resources with respect to providing economic support to their children. The prospect of paying child support, perhaps with little or no involvement in other aspects of his child’s life, may discourage a young man from coming forward to claim paternity. In addition, the policies of educational institutions and training programs, provincial social service policies, and employment agreements may limit the degree to which adolescent fathers can be involved in the lives of their children with respect to family time, time away from work, school or training in order to be present during childbirth, and financial support and housing provision that takes into account non-resident children who may still spend part of their time with their father.

It may be that provincial policies act as a disincentive to the designation of fathers by young mothers, leading to “invisible” adolescent fathers who may not be aware themselves of the fact that they are fathers. For example, provincial legislation governs adoption procedures in each province, requiring the consent of both birth parents where a father has been identified. A young mother, then, can make this decision and not require the father’s involvement or consent if she does not identify him. Mothers can also travel with their child between provinces and apply for passports without the father’s permission if no father is designated on the birth certificate.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

The Forty-eighth session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women identified a key area of concern with respect to the role of men and boys in achieving gender equality (Lyra, 2004). In highlighting concerns about early childbearing, Lyra points to a near universal focus on adolescent mothers leading from conceptions about young men as reckless and irresponsible, and generally absent. Attention is most often centred on prevention of reproduction rather than the needs of young fathers. Almost no research in the area of adolescent pregnancy includes information about fathers (Lyra, 2004).

Obstacles related to workplace policies that influence the involvement of fathers of all ages also apply to young fathers, with an extension to academic and training programs and institutions. In addition, the particular needs of young fathers to complete their formal education and embark on life-time careers are a significant concern. Research that has considered the needs of community reintegration of adolescent fathers who have been incarcerated in the young offender system in the U.S., and young fathers who were involved in a program for young fathers in the U.S., points to the overall importance, from the young men’s perspective as well as from a community perspective, of employment services and educational/vocational training (Unruh, Bullis & Yovanoff, 2003; Weinman, Smith & Buzi, 2002).

Policy makers and program planners are left with a challenge when considering how to address the needs of adolescent fathers as a specific group. Developmentally, these young men are very likely needing much different support and intervention than young women (Marsiglio & Cohen, 1997) in order to ensure their successful transition to responsible and involved fathers. Due to limitations in research and the relative lack of programming directed at young fathers, new developments must generally be of a pilot nature with ongoing assessment and evaluation to determine their effectiveness. Policies and practices should take into account the variety of overlapping life challenges being faced by these young men including parenting, education and vocational planning, economic marginalization and lack of extensive social support.

Key References

Information Child and Family Services. (2000). Child welfare in Canada: The role of provincial and territorial authorities in the provision of child protection services. Hull: Secretariat to the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working Group on Child and Family Services Information. Retrieved January 2005, from
Lyra, J. (2004). “The role of men and boys in achieving gender equality.” A written statement submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, 48th session, March 1-12, 2004. New York.
Marsiglio, W., & Cohan, M. (1997). Young fathers and child development. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The role of the father in child development. 3rd ed. (pp. 227-244). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Rains, P., Davies, L., & McKinnon, M. (1998). Taking responsibility: An insider view of teen motherhood. Families in Society, 79(3), 308-318.
Statistics Canada. (2005). Teen pregnancy, by outcome of pregnancy and age group, count and rate per 1,000 women, Canada, provinces and territories, 1997-2001. Retrieved January 2005, from
Unruh, D., Bullis, M., & Yovanoff, P. (2003). Community reintegration outcomes for formerly incarcerated adolescent fathers and non-fathers. Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Disorders, 11, 144-156.
Waterloo Catholic District School Board. (1999). Student pregnancies: Considerations and directions for Catholic educators. Retrieved January 2005, from
Weinman, M. L., Smith, P. B., & Buzi, R. S. (2002). Young fathers: An analysis of risk behaviors and service needs. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 19, 437-453.