By Elizabeth Karberg, Ph.D., and Shelby Hickman
Many Hispanic immigrant families in the U.S. face high rates of poverty, crowded housing conditions, and are dealing with stress and discrimination related to immigration status and getting settled in a new country. Despite these obstacles, Hispanic children demonstrate strong social development, and research suggests this is due in part to Hispanic immigrant fathers’ relatively active involvement with their families.
Living with Their Children
Seventy percent of Hispanic fathers live with at least one of their children. While we don’t know this statistic for Hispanic immigrant dads, we do know that low-income Hispanic children with at least one foreign-born parent are more likely to live with their father than low-income white, black, or Hispanic children with U.S.-born parents. This matters because living together allows dads more opportunities for involvement with their kids, such as feeding, bathing, playing, and reading with younger children, or helping with school work and monitoring activities with older ones.
Involved Frequently and Positively
Hispanic immigrant fathers tend to be highly involved in their children’s lives. This trend holds true during pregnancy, which is noteworthy because a father’s involvement during pregnancy is an important predictor of frequent positive involvement after childbirth. And in fact, research finds that once their children are born, Hispanic dads (both immigrant and U.S.-born) are more frequently involved than white or black fathers.
Demonstrating Warm Parenting Behaviors
Although data on Hispanic immigrant families, particularly fathers, are limited, this growing body of research sheds light on the role that Hispanic immigrant dads play in their children’s lives. For example, a study based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. children born in 2000 found that Mexican-origin fathers who are not U.S. citizens and don’t speak English in the home show more affection and are more nurturing with their children than Mexican-origin parents who are U.S. citizens and speak English in the home. There is also evidence that Hispanic immigrant parents (moms included) use less harsh discipline (such as spanking, hitting, or yelling at their children) than white parents. Overall, this small body of literature suggests that Hispanic immigrant parents, on average, are highly positive with their children.
There are nuances to explore, however. For instance, one study that grouped U.S.-born and immigrant fathers together found that Hispanic fathers are less involved with their children than white or black fathers, and one explanation is that their level of involvement differs by activity. For example, research suggests that Hispanic fathers are more engaged in play with their children but less engaged in caregiving activities compared with white fathers. Another study found that immigrant Hispanic fathers who have lived in the U.S. longer are less involved in care-taking activities than their counterparts who have recently moved to the U.S. Together, this research implies that rates of Hispanic father involvement may depend on the domain of involvement, their time in this country, and whether they are immigrant or U.S.-born, among other factors. It’s important for more research to be done on Hispanic fathers, and some of that work should examine the heterogeneity of this group so that a clearer and more complete picture can be formed.
Positive Parenting Matters for Kids AND Dads
These high levels of involvement and warmth and low levels of harsh parenting are beneficial to children’s well-being. One study of low-income Hispanic children in child care settings finds that they excel socially compared with other children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, and fathers are partially responsible for this. Studies consistently find that some Hispanic children outpace black and white children, once background factors are taken into account, in behavior and social competence development (although not in other domains of development). Specifically, a large study of Mexican-American children found that children of immigrant parents, on average, had fewer aggressive and socially “bad” behaviors than children of U.S.-born Hispanic, white, and black parents, even after accounting for family background factors. However, research also suggests that when parents of any ethnicity have positive parenting behaviors, their children do better socially. That is, there does not appear to be ethnic differences in why fathers matter for their kid’s development.
We have less research examining how Hispanic immigrants’ parenting influences their own well-being. However, a study including immigrant Hispanic fathers found that those who were more committed to fathering (e.g., ones who reported that being a father and raising children is extremely fulfilling) and who spent more time with their infants reported better psychological and physical well-being than less-committed fathers who spent less time with their infants.
Why Immigrant Fathers Excel
Why does this research matter? Hispanic immigrants are the largest group of immigrants in the U.S., and Hispanic children and families face a number of daunting challenges, including lower pre-literacy skills (often attributed to weaker English-language skills than other ethnic groups), higher rates of teen pregnancy, and higher rates of school dropout than their white and black counterparts.
But these new data suggest that children are well-behaved and well-adjusted when their families have strong cultural values of familismo (valuing the family first and foremost), respeto (being respectful), bien educado (behaving well), and high levels of parental involvement on the part of both mothers and fathers. When recognized and cultivated, these positive qualities may help low-income Hispanic children overcome challenges and reach their full potential.
 Child Trends calculation from Jones, J. & Mosher, W.D. (2013) Fathers’ involvement with their children: United States, 2006—2010. National Health Statistics Reports, 71, 1-22.