Modern dads are expanding the definition of fatherhood.
I’ll explain: As the father of a toddler myself, I am constantly in a state of growth. I operate with the best parenting knowledge I can find, and I’m always trying to learn more. I do the best I can for my daughter and try to balance the parenting workload with my wife. That desire to learn distinguishes me, and all modern dads, from our paternal predecessors, many of whom operated on a set of guidelines that were born before their country was. More on that later. So it stings when others see us through an antiquated lens. They make comments and observations that aren’t just off-putting, but inaccurate and counterproductive. We’re not saying we’re perfect by any means, but we deserve some credit for evolving over the years.
“I actually had people laugh at me while trying to change a diaper.”
So, let’s discuss how fatherhood has changed over time, why dads shouldn’t be held up to old paradigms, and finally, what comments modern dads really hate to hear.
How Fatherhood Has Changed Through The Ages
Today’s dad is not the stereotypical breadwinner of the 1950s. You know the guy—he’s still in countless TV shows and movies. He came home from a long day at work just in time for dinner (which he expected the wife to have prepared for him). He was the provider of financial stability, the disciplinarian, and that was pretty much it. Jennifer L. Baker, clinical psychologist specialist and founder of Good Dads, a fatherhood resource in Springfield, Missouri, explains that “20th century fathers often thought their role was to earn a living for their family … they did not think in terms of emotional support or instrumental support.” A 2014 Cornell University paper states that this view began to form in the 18th century. As America became an industrial country, the paper states, fathers spent more and more time working away from their families. After industrialization, “a man’s worth was often based on his ability to provide for his family.” Things started to change in the late 1970s, though, when “encouraging parenting participation for less involved fathers became a primary focus of national policy makers,” the paper says. Men began engaging more with their children, and today, the “the new nurturant father” (“a father who still financially provides for his family, but is also nurturing and emotionally involved…”) is even more prominent in society. Dads are “spending a much larger proportion of their time with their children than their dads did,” Baker says. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey offers further insight, with the responders stating it was extremely important that fathers were involved in four “necessities,” including (in order of priority): values and morals, emotional support, discipline, and income. We should also note how age correlated in the study: respondents under the age of 65 were far more supportive of fathers having increased roles in providing emotional support, illustrating the split in opinion among generational lines.
Breaking Dad Stereotypes
Despite these changes, negative images of fathers persist. If you watch the average sitcom today, the father is likely to be a bumbling doofus, an overgrown kid who is outmatched mentally and physically by his wife and children. These portrayals suggest that masculinity is somehow threatened by the very act of parenting. That being involved with your children makes one look weak or silly. This notion isn’t just offensive, it’s flat out untrue. A study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that being a well-rounded father is actually a sign of emotional and mental strength. Indeed, the most involved fathers showed “positive psychological adjustment characteristics (e.g., high self esteem, lower levels of depression and hostility, and coping well with the major tasks of adulthood).” The study also found that a father’s love is integral to a child’s development, both cognitively and emotionally. In addition, children with affectionate fathers are less prone to substance abuse or behavioral issues. Baker founded Good Dads to create a supportive environment to encourage this nurturing aspect in fathers. “I just saw how overlooked men were and how they are so important to almost every social problem we have in the United States,” she says. “I wanted to be able to do something where we could reach out to any dad [and help them] to be more engaged with their children.” So, fatherhood has clearly changed. Let’s cover what things we need to stop saying to dads in lieu of these changes. First…
“You can change a diaper?”
For some reason, seeing dad change a dirty diaper is comedic to observers, but it can be aggravating to the dad on diaper duty. Father David Dierksen has first hand experience with this frustration. “I actually had people laugh at me while trying to change a diaper,” he says. “These were folks from my parents’ generation.” “There was nothing funny about the situation. I wasn’t struggling or making a face—I was doing just fine,” he continues. “I don’t think they were mocking me. It was more that their minds were blown that a dad would actually be changing a diaper … Changing a diaper shouldn’t be impressive in this day and age. It’s part of the job.” It’s key to note that these observations often come from other dads who feel these types of tasks are beneath them. Changing diapers is part of a being an involved, capable parent. It’s not rocket science; it simply comes with the territory.
Saying “You’re Such A Great Dad!” For Doing The Bare Minimum
Compliments on how we raise our children are always welcome. But patting us on the back for basic dad duties can be insulting.
“This isn’t 1966 anymore.”
“It’s condescending, not encouraging, to be praised for mediocre work,” says psychologist Eva Glasrud. “It reinforces the idea that ‘I don’t belong here and I’m not expected to do well.’” She also says that it can put strain on the family unit. “It’s not just bad for dads,” she says, but “it’s bad for kids, too. They’re expert social learners, and when they hear you say this, they’ll begin to form a rigid sense of gender roles.” Russ Johnson, a father of two, says that modern dads performing parenting tasks shouldn’t surprise anyone. “This isn’t 1966 anymore. Mothers work and have to contribute to the household income, so fathers should also be expected to play a bigger role in the child rearing. I enjoy being around my kids, so it’s not a task. And I am pretty sure my father’s generation would have thought so, too, if they had more time to be involved.”
“Being a stay-at-home dad must be easy.”
A 2014 Pew Research Center poll showed that the number of stay-at-home fathers has risen from 1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012. Despite this more widely accepted phenomenon, the American Psychological Foundation says many “stay-at-home fathers are routinely confronted with stigma due to their flouting of the social norms surrounding masculine behavior.”
“I’m a stay at home dad to three kids. I worked for years… Now, everyone thinks I’m on vacation.”
Baker expands upon this. “I think it’s hard for stay at home dads to know just exactly where their place is. Mothers who have been staying at home for a long time make play dates with other moms … so where does dad to go for support?” she says. “That’s one of the reasons we founded Good Dads lunches … they really like talking about being a dad [and] they get some ideas about how to be a better father. Otherwise, there’s very little opportunity for them to get together with other dads.” One of the biggest misconceptions of being a stay-at-home dad is that it’s easy. Travis Larkin made the transition from 9-5 dad to stay-at-home pop, and while wouldn’t trade it for anything, he gets profoundly irritated when someone thinks he’s got it easy. “I’m a stay at home dad to three kids,” he says. “I worked for years paying all the bills and getting my wife through school. Now, everyone thinks I’m on vacation. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s a lot of work!” As someone who has spent some time as a stay-at-home father myself, I can attest to this. It’s rewarding and often amusing, but it can be just as draining as a day on the job.
“He didn’t get that from me.”
This one’s for spouses.
Pointing out personality traits that your child has clearly picked up from their dad can be illuminating, endearing, and hilarious. But attributing every negative trait to him can poison a relationship (not to mention making the child feel self-conscious). Watching a child’s personality bloom is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a parent, and one can over-personalize commonalities your kiddo shares with his dad. Keep in mind that your child has their own distinct persona, full of positives and negatives. If there’s a negative trait you want to discourage, make it a team effort rather than pinning the blame for the unwanted behavior on the spouse. This jab goes both ways, though, so dads should make sure not to make the same mistake.
“You’re not doing it right.”
“One of the things that mother should avoid saying is ‘here let me do it, you don’t know how,'” Baker says. “Men like to be thought of as successful. If they’re feeling like they’re a failure if they don’t do it exactly right, they won’t necessarily take instruction. They’ll just avoid and withdraw.” She suggests it’s more effective that moms offer direction as opposed to offering too much criticism when talking to their husbands. “Gatekeeping is one of the major issues that may prevent many fathers from engaging even more in active and equal fathering,” says Dr. Joyce Nuner, associate professor in Family and Consumer Sciences and Child and Family Studies at Baylor University. “Men do things differently—not better, not worse, just different.” “Don’t undo and then redo something dad has already done,” she says. “You may think he doesn’t notice, but he does, and so do your children. By giving fathers space to parent in their own way, you are showing your children that you are a team that works together. ”
That stereotype of dad being a big kid who values play above all else can make it seem like he doesn’t take the safety of his child seriously. While I can’t speak for all dads out there, I can attest that I’m a bit of a worrywart when it comes to my daughter’s well-being, whether it’s obsessing over car seat straps, freaking out when she gets a persistent cough, or monitoring who she interacts with when we’re out in public. In other words, we may be up for a fun time with our kids, but we want to keep them just as safe as moms do.
So, the next time you’re talking to a dad, try to keep those pointers in mind.
Just because we’re doing anything at all doesn’t mean we’re extraordinary; we’re simply doing what a modern parent should. That said, being a dad isn’t always easy. We’re still a work-in-progress, but the emphasis is on progress. And just because we do things differently doesn’t mean we’re doing them wrong; sometimes there are multiple ways to solve a problem. Give us a chance to show you what we can do. Yes, we can always improve, but for the most part, we’re just trying to stay ahead of the curve when caring for our kids.