Methods: A secondary data analysis was conducted using data from the Supporting Healthy Marriages program, which is a multi-site family strengthening program for low-income married couples. The study sample included 2,137 couples who had a focal child < 5 years. Father involvement was measured using 11 father-reported binary items that assessed various aspects of father involvement, including the time father spent with the child, paternal warmth, harsh discipline, and father’s engagement in caregiving, physical play, and cognitive stimulation. Child social competence, internalizing and externalizing problems, and verbal ability were measured using a 9-item social competence scale, a 27-item behavior problems scale, and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test 4 (PPVT-4), respectively. To address the research aims, Latent Class Analysis with distal outcomes was conducted, using Mplus v.8.
Results: Four distinctive father involvement latent classes were identified: 1) The high positive involvement class (48%) included fathers who displayed optimal, high-quality involvement. 2) The engaged but harsh discipline class (42%) consisted of fathers who showed a high level of involvement across the dimensions, yet used harsh physical and psychological discipline. 3) The low cognitive stimulation class (8%) consisted of fathers who exhibited a lower level of cognitive stimulation and a moderate level of involvement in all other dimensions. 4) The lower involvement class represented a generally low level of father involvement across all dimensions (2%). Children of fathers in the low cognitive stimulation class showed significantly lower social competence, greater internalizing and externalizing problems, and lower verbal ability, compared to children of fathers in the high positive involvement class or the engaged but harsh discipline class. Children of fathers with the high positive involvement class displayed fewer internalizing and externalizing behavior problems compared to children of fathers in the engaged but harsh discipline class.
Conclusions and Implications: The discovery of four distinctive father involvement patterns provides empirical support for heterogeneity in father involvement among low-income families. Our findings suggest that fathers’ cognitive stimulation plays a key role in their child’s successful social, behavioral, and cognitive development. Additionally, this study highlights paternal harsh discipline as a salient risk factor for behavior problems in children. Practitioners should actively engage fathers in parenting interventions, with a particular focus on enhancing fathers’ involvement in cognitive stimulation and positive parenting, to promote optimal development of children in low-income families.