I attended my niece's graduation recently, and amid all the cheers and high-fives, one father said something that left me stunned.

"Thank God, no more child-support payments," he said to no one in particular as he passed me and others leaving the ceremony.

I gave him the evil eye.

What a shame. On such a momentous day, this father was beaming and boasting that he didn't have to financially support his child anymore.

How many mothers struggle to provide for their children because some trifling man has run off ignoring his financial obligation to care for his family?

Too many.

I know that children who live apart from their fathers are at greater risk of living in poverty. So I didn't laugh at that father's declaration the way some others did.

But after I stopped steaming, I wondered if that father was entitled to feel relieved.

Perhaps he felt the way he did because we have overemphasized the financial role that divorced and separated fathers are supposed to play in the lives of their children.

Are we saying to too many men: "Show us the money, because that's mostly all you're good for"?

Is it true that fathers help their children more by consistent payment of child support than by the number of visits made to their children?

That's what Valarie King, associate professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in a research article in the Journal of Marriage and the Family almost a decade ago.

Today, the data still show that fathers who don't live with their children make the greatest impact through child support, King said in an interview.

"I know a lot of men get upset when I say that. They say, 'Am I just a cash machine?' But money does matter. Kids that get child support have a higher standard of living."

Compared with mothers, fathers tend to have comparatively little involvement in the day-to-day care of their children, even in intact families, according to King. "Therefore, infrequent contact between nonresident fathers and their children seems to be less damaging than many people think"

It comes down to this, King says: Child support helps enhance the mother's economic well-being and thus her emotional well-being. The level of child support is crucial because it can significantly increase the resources available to the child. Child support can help children get better education, receive better health care or live in a better neighborhood.

All true.

Children need their father's financial support.

However, children need to know that their daddy is needed just as much as his money.

That may seem obvious, but I can't tell you how many women I've heard say, "I don't need a man to help me raise my child."

I know what they mean. They mean it's possible -- and it is -- for women, without the help of a man, to raise healthy and happy children.

But fathers -- specifically good fathers -- can have a powerfully positive impact on their children. And that impact often has nothing to do with money.

I know my children benefit greatly from having a father who is very involved in their day-to-day care. Actually, my husband does my two girls' hair better than I do. The time he spends combing their hair is priceless (and a lot less painful than when I do it).

And the fact is, men want to increase their involvement with their children. According to a new survey by the online job-searching site CareerBuilder.com, 42 percent of working fathers say they are willing to take a pay cut to obtain a job that affords them an improved balance of work and home.

More than two-thirds of working fathers are spending in excess of 40 hours a week at work, and 25 percent work more than 50 hours each week, according to CareerBuilder.com's "Men and Women at Work 2004" survey.

Even though 87 percent of working fathers earn more than their spouse or partner, four in 10 working fathers said they would relinquish the breadwinner role and stay at home with the kids if their spouse or partner earned enough for them to live comfortably.

To better manage personal and professional commitments, more working dads should take advantage of telecommuting and flexible work schedules, CareerBuilder.com suggests.

I have another suggestion: Let's stop using the term "deadbeat dads."

Is it really healthy to tell a child his or her dad is a deadbeat? I'm not advocating that fathers shouldn't be aggressively pursued to pay child support. But that pursuit shouldn't be all about the money.

It's important that children know their fathers are more than cash machines.

Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or by e-mail at singletarym@washpost.com.