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What Does It Mean to Be a Good Dad? The Answer Is More Complex Than Ever

And this is a good thing.

In our research interviews, we ask expectant fathers a few questions intended to elicit their own theories of fatherhood, such as “What do you think a father should be like?” and “How do you picture yourself as a father?” These questions draw responses based on young men’s own experiences of having been fathered and on their culturally informed beliefs about fatherhood. And their responses suggest that what they expect from the selves as fathers and how they define a “good father” extends beyond being a good breadwinner. For example, when asked about their biggest priority as a father, “being there” for their children is the most common response among the fathers (and fathers-to-be) in our studies, which is consistent with what other father researchers are reporting.

When Robert, the young father from Chicago whom we introduced in Chapter 1, was asked “What should a father be like?” he responded with a calm certainty: “To be there. Whatever the baby… whatever the baby needs of you, the father has to be there. No matter what, I will be there if the baby needs me; I will be there no matter what it is. I won’t let nothing stop me from being there for my baby.”

Robert’s father was divorced from his mother, but he was still quite involved in Robert’s upbringing, and there isn’t a single note of bitterness in Robert’s description of the ideal father. By contrast, we often hear a young man’s emphasis on the importance of “being there” against the backdrop of a childhood marked by an absent or abusive father. Some of the young men in our studies are painfully explicit about how a father should not behave. Jed, the burly Salt Lake City father who had been abused by his father, was impressively reflective as he conveyed his views of fatherhood to Keith, who interviewed him.

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Jed: “I don’t think the father should be the head of the household. It should be the mother and the father together. All the fathers that I’ve seen will not accept anything other than what they say is right. All the fathers I’ve seen either don’t care or they don’t love enough. If my father would have loved us enough, then he would have never abused us. He would not have felt the urge to hurt us if he loved us like he said he did. He always told us he loved us, and it was very confusing because, even when I was young, I realized if that was true, he would’ve never done what he did. It was very confusing. I think a father should love his children. He should be firm, and he should set an example, and he should provide for the family. You know, I think providing is nurturing not just the financial needs, but being there for the family to care for them. Even a simple thing… like, I would value more than anything, more than all the money in the world, I would like to be able to say, ‘Dad, come help me fix my car.’ A father should be loving with his family.”

Keith: “Any other specific qualities stick out in your mind as far as what a father should be like?”

Jed: “There’s an interesting country song that I really like, it’s, uh, ‘You got to be strong enough to bend.‘ Only the trees that are strong enough to bend survive. If you’re not strong enough to accept looking at the other person’s point of view, you’re just going to break, you won’t bend. You won’t survive the storm. I really believe that’s an important part of being a father.”

When it comes to traditional views of fatherhood, of course, two mainstays of the father’s role in the family have been that of provider as well as that of “moral compass” or role model. With regard to these two issues, our interviews with young fathers are interesting in that the responses are yet again consistent with a pattern of shifting and broadening standards of fatherhood. First, when describing what it means to be a good father, any mention of providing or being a role model (and/or the primary disciplinarian in the family) is conspicuously absent from many of the young fathers’ responses. Second, when either or both of these characteristics are mentioned, which they were by several fathers in our studies, these roles were nearly always mentioned together with an emphasis on involvement or nurturing, in addition to providing or being a good role model.

For example, when we asked Darnel (the father who was an active co-parent with Cleo, despite no longer staying together) what he thought a father should be like, he said, “I basically think that [a father] should… try his best to provide for his family and give ’em a place to live, and food to eat… as well as spend time with his family — know what I’m sayin’? He can’t be basically about working, working, working, and not home with his family, with his kids.”

So, while some expectant fathers emphasize the “provider” role and/or the role of “moral compass,” many underscore that the “softer” aspects of fathering also matter, and many believe that those aspects matter most. Take Steve, for example, the Salt Lake City father we introduced in Chapter 5, who, like Darnel, speaks directly to the importance of paternal warmth without disregarding more “traditional” father roles.

Dave: “What should a father be like?”

Steve: “Nice, understanding, always there. Um, ready to deal with problems, help their wife any way they can, um, just loving.”

Dave: “How do you picture your role as a father?”

Steve: “I picture myself. . . . I’m going to have fun with my kids, but I also want to make sure they’re taught right. Make sure they don’t make the same mistakes I did. I’ll try to make them better than I am. That’s probably my goal right there, just to make them better than me in every way I can.”

There is still disagreement about how exactly to define fatherhood or what to expect from fathers. Yet, there is a general consensus that our notions of what it means to be a good father have become more complex, more varied, perhaps more flexible. Although most family researchers would probably agree that fathers and mothers still tend to occupy different roles, we can no longer think of these roles as distinctively feminine or masculine, emerging from some biologically innate skill or trait.

This article was adapted from From Lost and Found: Young Fathers in the Age of Unwed Parenthood by Paul Florsheim and David Moore. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Florsheim and David Moore and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.