Nurturing versus stoic dads
Thinking about the broad impact fathers have, I analyzed how fathering affects different social values – such as a belief in gender equality – in May 2021.
Surveying more than 2,500 American fathers 18 and older, I found that involved fathering has a long-lasting impact on the personal principles and cultural perspectives of children.
In my survey, the differences between the least nurturing and the most nurturing fathers are stark.
Surveyed fathers who reported that their own fathers were highly withdrawn tended to be hypercompetitive, emotionally stoic and unappreciative of women’s contributions outside the home.
In contrast, surveyed fathers who said they had highly nurturing dads were much more likely to achieve their goals in a healthy manner, be more emotionally open and believe in equitable partnership.
How dads instill values
Several decades ago, many fathers were unwilling or unable to provide their children with emotional support or physical care. Instead, they focused on bread-winning, children’s discipline and simply being present in the home.
These traditional norms left many contemporary fathers ill-equipped for modern parenthood. Contemporary social norms set broad expectations for fathers: rule enforcement and economically supporting the family while also providing for children’s physical and emotional needs.
Broad paternal involvement with kids is important because dads have unique effects on kids. Children’s values, beliefs, emotional expression and social development are strongly associated with fathering. Kids are better regulated emotionally, more resilient and more open-minded when their fathers are involved in their education and socialization.
Boys, for better and worse, often mirror the habits, interests and values of their own fathers.
My colleague Scott Easton and I found that how one’s father behaves is especially powerful given that cultural, social and institutional norms about fatherhood are much weaker than they are for motherhood.
For example, mothers have traditionally been known for showing children affection and providing emotional support. Social expectations for these behaviors are not well defined among fathers. As a result, dads have a much larger impact on their sons’ fathering behaviors than moms have on their daughters’ mothering behaviors.
Positively, this means that a sizable portion of men replicate the best attributes of their own fathers – such as being loving and affectionate. Negatively, this means bad behaviors – such as extremely harsh discipline – are sometimes repeated across generations.
However, some men compensate for their own fathers’ poor or nonexistent parenting by forming their own ideas and values about parenting.