Thinking About Fatherhood May Improve Views of Men

Impressions of men become more positive when they are considered as dads.

Posted Jun 15, 2018

Many countries and cultures have a special day where they honor men as parents: the third Sunday of June is Father’s day, at least in the USA and large parts of Europe, and other days in March, September or November are designated for this purpose elsewhere in the world. These days are set apart for explicit expressions of gratitude for parental guidance, support, and care that cement connections between generations, and can extend to stepfathers, grandfathers, and fathers-in-law. Of course, it is easy to discard this tradition as a form of imposed sentimentality, or as serving the commercial interests of companies selling barbecue utensils, gardening equipment or household maintenance tools—the standard Father’s Day gifts. Yet, there may be important benefits in celebrating men in the role of father.

Why is this important?

Many fathers struggle with the incompatibility of their responsibilities: The work they do to provide for their families may require frequent travel, take them away from their family for long stretches of time, or imply that they cannot be present at important family events. Many companies tailor their regulations for flexible or part-time work and parental leave to the biological realities faced by mothers. This neglects the needs of fathers who wish to take time away from work or adapt their schedules to be able to care for their children.

This common practice can be traced back to the male stereotype, which leads people to expect that men primarily are assertive and agentic rather than warm and caring. This is often seen as rooted in biological predispositions, such as high testosterone levels. Yet not all men are alike, and studies show that important life events can induce hormonal changes. For instance, equal increases in levels of oxytocin (a hormone related to care) have been documented in men and women after the birth of their first child. Further evidence shows that men's societal role as economic providers impacts their hormonal regulation, thoughts, feelings, and life choices.

Although their perceived agency and assertiveness may help men perform well and show their competence at work, it may also cause them to neglect their needs for emotional closeness and interpersonal connection. The male stereotype and expectations for appropriate social roles can prevent men from taking on caring roles in their family and cause stay-at-home dads to be devalued by others. This can have far-reaching implications for men of all ages, races, and sexual orientations, where conformity to stereotypical expectations of masculinity has been found to relate to impaired social functioning and lowered well-being. 

Men vs. fathers

A recent series of studies sought to examine whether stereotypical views of men differ from those of fathers, and how these two might be reconciled (Park & Banchefsky, 2018). In a first study, male and female U.S. workers of different age groups, parental status, and political orientations were asked to assign 145 randomly ordered traits to target groups of ‘men’ ‘women’ ‘dads’ and ‘moms’. Results showed that—while there was considerable overlap between the traits assigned to ‘women’ and to ‘moms’—the traits that were seen as characteristic of ‘men’ clearly differed from those assigned to ‘dads’. Further, the traits that ‘men’ were seen to possess were clearly rated more negatively than traits assigned to the other groups, including ‘dads’. 

Positive views of fathers

A follow-up study examined whether emphasizing men's social roles as fathers might bring to mind more positive views of men in general. In one condition, information was provided about the changing role of fathers due to their increased involvement in child care in many dual-earner families. This contrasted with another condition, which emphasized the importance of lifetime training and updating of skills needed to maintain one’s place in the work force. Inducing research participants to think of men as fathers rather than as members of the workforces made them add more positive traits to the profiles they provided as typical of ‘men’. Reading about trends in fatherhood rather than workplace trends caused male and female participants to rate men as significantly more dependable, helpful, loyal, and generous, and as significantly less dominant, hostile, selfish, and untrustworthy, among other traits.

Celebrating fatherhood

Prior research on fatherhood has mainly documented how caring dads can benefit the well-being, career ambitions, and life choices of their children. Existing insights also suggest that investing in their role as fathers can contribute to men's well-being. This recent research additionally indicates that a focus on fatherhood can alleviate negative views of men and improve the expectations we have of them.

In the USA, the annual celebration of Father’s Day is traced back to two historic events. One is the memorial service of a mining disaster in 1908 that deprived 250 families of their fathers. The other is a church sermon in 1910 devoted to a single father who raised his six children by himself instead of putting them in foster care after their mother had passed away. Both these events singled out the role of men as family providers and caretakers, and they laid the foundations of a tradition that invite children to explicitly communicate affection and gratitude to their fathers—at least once a year.

References

Ellemers, N. (2018). Gender stereotypes. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 275-298.

Park, B., & Banchefsky S. (2018). Leveraging the social role of dad to change stereotypes of men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-15. DOI: 10.1177/0146167218768794

Wong, Y.J., Ho, M-H.R., Wang, S-Y., & Miller, I.S.K. (2017). Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64,  80–93.