Engaged Black fathers strengthen health of their kids, communities — and themselves.

Men often replicate the best attributes of their own fathers – such as being loving and affectionate. Adobe Stock Photo

According to statistics from the CDC, Black fathers are more involved with their kids daily than fathers from other racial groups. About 70% of Black dads who live with their kids bathe, dress, change or help their child with the toilet each day, compared with 60% of White fathers and 45% of Hispanic dads. 

These facts go against the racist myth often portrayed in politics, the media, and in higher education: That Black fathers are largely absent and unengaged with their children. 

While Black fathers are less likely to marry their children’s mothers than White and Hispanic fathers — a fact that’s often the result structural and systemic racism — they are engaged and generally place a high value on parenting regardless of setting. For example Black fathers may live with their children’s moms or visit regularly. They may provide joint caretaking, as well as financial and in-kind support. They may be single custodial fathers or stepfathers, too. 


According to Dr. Paula Marie Powe, Researcher, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Pitt, and Medical Director of the Theiss Center for Child and Adolescent Trauma at UPMC, playing with a child is a simple, but powerful act that’s critical to the child’s healthy brain development — especially between ages 1 to 3.

Dr. Powe explains, “When a father is down on the floor playing, wrestling, or reading to their toddler, their supportive and responsive engagement is helping their child form attachments and feel secure. They’re teaching their child that his or her needs will be met.”

Engaged play helps to build brains that are school-ready, socially developed, and able to cope. “Fathers offer something unique to their children on a social and emotional realm,” Dr. Powe adds. “The coping and regulation children learn from their dad is slightly different than what they learn from their mom.”

Engagement also benefits fathers. “Playing with your child releases oxytocin, which improves mood,” she says. “The enjoyment you both feel is validating and self-perpetuating, not to mention just plain fun, which can shift a father’s perspective for the better.” 

When Dr. Powe was a new clinician, she focused on how to help Black families protect their children’s developing brains from trauma and toxic stress. However, in her clinical practice, she most often saw toddlers with their mothers. “My goal then became how to bring this message of prevention to Black fathers through research,” she states.

Dr. Powe acknowledges there are barriers that can make it hard for fathers to be engaged. “The father may not live with the mother and there may be gatekeeping issues between them,” she says. “There might be financial or legal custody considerations. Maybe the father feels he can’t provide for his kids, so he stays away entirely to avoid the emotional toll this takes on him. There could also be barriers that are rooted in racism, such as inequitable incarceration,” she says.

To help fathers overcome these barriers, Dr. Powe has studied what Black fathers need to be the best fathers to their children. “How fathers feel about themselves — their self-image — is hugely important,” says Dr. Powe.

Having a positive self-image depends on many things. Does a father understand the important role he play’s in his child’s healthy development? Can he recognize and rely on the cultural strengths and resilience within Black communities? Is he aware of the toll systemic racism and social inequities have taken on him in areas like employment, education, housing, and health?

Dr. Powe’s research also points to the power of supportive networks that come from family members, friends, and community organizations like Parenting While Black and Healthy Start Fatherhood, as well as platforms such as Fathers Incorporated, The Dad Gang, Dope Black Dads, and the Dear Fathers.

“Representation matters. The more we see healthy, happy, and engaged Black dads on social media and in the news, the easier it is to see yourself in that role,” says Dr. Powe. “Positive modeling ­— along with community and family support systems — serve as a map for navigating the world of Black fatherhood.”

Addressing mental health issues and promoting well-being among Black fathers is also essential for building a strong self-image, as well as fostering positive parent-child relationships and family functioning. “Resilience and depression can co-exist in Black fathers,” reminds Dr. Powe.

To address this, Dr. Powe has recently helped to add a mental health component to the highly successful Parenting While Black initiative.

Black fathers are so important to their children’s lives,” says Dr. Powe. “That will never change. Mothers would certainly agree. Dr. Powe and others’ research confirms that co-parenting with an engaged father gives mom a break and makes her feel she’s not alone on the journey. “When dad is engaged and present, mom can relax a little and tap out,” she says. “That can go a long way in improving communication between the two parents, changing perspectives, and making conflict resolution easier.”

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