Hobbies For Men: Why Dads Become Obsessed With Model Trains and Other Activities

When time is short and money is tight, fathers often turn the most banal of activities into leisure experiences. 

by John Mihaly
Originally Published: 
An illustration of a dad controlling an airplane that is leaving smoke behind
Julia Barnes for Fatherly

Every now and then an article or Twitter thread will pop up asking “What’s Your Dad’s Weird Hobby?” or “What Creepy Hobby Did Your Dad Have?” They’re all fun and games, sure, but it speaks to this notion that the world of hobbies for men is peculiar. In particular, the leisure activities men pursue as dads become, well, pretty strange or goofy. There’s truth to it after all: Who didn’t know a dad who lovingly obsessed over his yard, spent hours assembling model trains, or took on a decade-long quest to make the perfect smoked ribs?

So what happens? It’s not as though new wiring is formed in a dad’s brains that makes men this way. Much of it has to do with the fact that when time is short and money is tight, fathers tend to turn banal experiences into leisure activities. Despite how deeply strange hobbies for men may be, most are excellent for them — and their families.

When we use the word hobby, what we’re really talking about is leisure. In fact, there’s an entire sub-field of sociology dedicated to the study of leisure time and leisure activities. Hobbies are, after all, essential to who we are as individuals and the individuals we envision our children becoming.

“Hobbies are something that people gain knowledge, skill, and experience from by persevering and putting effort into them,” says Bob Stebbins, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and author of After Work: The Search For an Optimal Leisure Lifestyle.

There’s a Greek term for this called eudemonism: the feeling of fulfillment or profound rewards for having successfully enacted a leisure activity. Those rewards can come in the form of personality development, and their outcomes can offer long lasting social recognition.

“For the individual, that person is a new person once they master, reasonably, the skill and knowledge base of that activity,” says Stebbins.

The Evolution of Dad Hobbies

When men become new fathers their leisure time and hobbies can become threatened. If leisure equals time plus money, then those numbers just aren’t adding up like they used to.

“Men who become fathers struggle and strive to maintain the things that they’re familiar with,” says Thomas Fletcher, senior lecturer at the School of Events Tourism and Hospitality Management at Leeds Beckett University and author of Negotiating Fatherhood: Sports and Family Practices.

Conversely, men aren’t ditching old hobbies for brand-new ones when they become fathers, but they are seeking out alternatives. Team sports are often too time-consuming and structured during valuable weekend afternoons. So dads that jettison their flag-football league might take up a more ad hoc athletic endeavor like tennis because it requires one opponent and you can schedule games at more convenient times.

Sometimes, dads take up interests that aren’t theirs to begin with.

“Men often disregard their own interests and throw themselves full hog into what the kids are doing,” Fletcher says. For some fathers, their kids are resurrecting their own athletic careers. Others might not necessarily live vicariously through their children, but they continue to maintain their interest in the hobby. They may turn to coaching as a way to scratch that itch. It depends from case to case, of course, but the patterns are there. It all depends.

Where the Weird Comes In

In the world of hobbies for men, enjoyment is in the eye of the doer. Stebbins offers some examples of seeing hobbies through different points of view. Stargazing or amateur archeology, for instance, is not a weird hobby but engaging in those activities in the dead of winter or the middle of summer is not for everyone. Neither is collecting bugs. However being an amateur entomologist might not be so bad because you’re out in the woods and the environment is pleasant.

“It might seem goofy because of the object (i.e. bugs) but more often it’s about the amount of effort or passion that goes into the activity and the way the hobby is done that makes it appear weird,” Stebbins says.

The more traditional weird or boring dad activities fall into what the experts refer to as “banal leisure activities.” These are the chores turned hobbies. Tending to the garden. Washing the car. Cooking dinner. They need to be done and that necessity often helps them evolve into true passions. A lot of dads, for instance, love lawn care. Mowing the front yard makes their day and upkeep of one’s home shows pride and increases value in an investment.

“It’s these little activities that become a hobby because they are so mundane,” Fletcher says. “They don’t require you to go anywhere, they don’t require anyone’s commitment but your own, and they are things you can do in the presence of your kids. In fact, you’re doing these activities whilst supporting your kids.”

Dads whose leisure time has been significantly decreased will be looking for any opportunity to reclaim some space —the garage for example — or to get some of that time back.

“There is certainly an element of escape,” Fletcher says. “There is also an element of resistance as well, that, ‘I’m entitled to my time.’ That can be healthy and it’s often stated inadvertently. We won’t scream or shout about it.”

The Generational Impact of a Good Hobby

The banal activities that dads do are, most of the time, productive things. They have a cultural value that’s not necessarily the same as playing sports or going to museums, but they instill positive values in our children. There’s generativity to them that these values are passed along. Kids, of course, are influenced by the things they observe their parents doing.

“To me, it’s important that your kids see you doing productive things and however you define productive is very subjective,” Fletcher says. “Ideally, I would like my kids to see me be physically active because it’s a good thing to do. That doesn’t necessarily mean playing sports, but it does mean not sitting on the sofa watching TV.”

Fathers work with what they have. They make the most out of the time or money that is left available to our individual interests, sometimes sacrificing them entirely in the name of providing the best life for their kids. Sure, a dad may feel some guilt when he pawns the kids off to explore his own unique endeavors, but it’s so necessary for everyone he does so.

“We can’t emphasize this enough: Parents need to be told that it’s all right to spend time away from their kids,” Fletcher says.

So these weird hobbies are a compromise, often built out of necessity. But they develop and foster strong values. Because even when fathers are doing something for themselves, it’s still for the good of the family.

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