What Works: Chapter 12, Why Do Young Men Still Want to Learn to Be Good Fathers?

A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men

What Works book cover

Why Do Young Men Still Want to Learn to Be Good Fathers? 
By Dr. Eric Olofson

At first blush, an article on young men's desire to be good fathers may seem out of place in a section on educating men. From their perspectives, however, the connection may seem more straightforward. Young men in this culture are less likely to have caregiving experience than young women-I know of men who never even held an infant until their own! Thus, if they are to be good fathers it will have to be the result of an education.

As a professor at Wabash College, an institution for men, I have attempted to meet this need. I have the rare privilege to spend each fall semester with 40 thoughtful young men in a psychology class dedicated to investigating the empirical literature concerning fatherhood. On the first day of the most recent section of the course,I asked how many were excited to become fathers. All but one hand shot up. I then asked them to write about why they wanted to be good fathers, and their responses were thoughtful, sometimes profound, and most of all, filled with optimism about the future.

Two themes emerged from their responses. The first theme is that these young men were excited to be fathers. They discussed the joy of having their children run into their arms after returning from work or the joy of seeing their children accomplish their goals. Many students discussed a desire to pass along the family name and traditions, to serve as a link in a chain that extends to the past and the future.

The second, and clearly dominant, theme was that of generativity, a term coined by Erik Erickson to refer to the concern for fostering the next generation. According to Erickson, generativity becomes important in middle age, when parents' firstborn children are moving through high school. My students, long before this age, were virtually unanimous in articulating a desire to raise children who will influence the world. Even so, the motivations for being generative varied. Many students were motivated by their own fathers, either to provide the next generation with the good fathering that they had received, or to improve on the failures of their own fathers. (Interestingly, however, while their answers demonstrated an acute sense of what their fathers did well, they often lacked a sense of how they did it. As one student, Dan, noted, "While my father was present in my life, I don't feel like I have any real preparation or knowledge regarding being a dad.")

Other generative motivations were inextricably tied to their identities. For example, Tucker discussed the intimate link between fathering and masculinity. He said, "Honestly, I would feel like less of a man if I was never a father. I think I would look back on my life and think to myself that I had failed to contribute anything to society, that I had never raised up children to have a better life than my own, to make the world a better place." Tucker's comments add richness to Erickson's concepts. Generativity is not simply a concern of parents, or even of the sex biologically equipped to bring forth life. It is also a distinctly masculine trait. In short, my students want to learn to be good fathers because that is what good men do; they do their part to make the world a better place.

Despite the hopefulness in my students' comments, it is the sad truth that they are not representative of all young men in this country. My students have been admitted to a selective college and have self-selected into a course on fatherhood. Their excitement is unlikely to be shared by all young men, many of whom will choose not to be active in their children's lives. But perhaps what my students lack in representativeness they make up in insight and in educating us, the community invested in encouraging engaged and responsible fatherhood. Perhaps the key to being successful on this front is not emphasizing personal responsibility, as important as that is. Perhaps the key is in engaging their masculinity and generative aspirations. Perhaps the key is to emphasize that by learning how to be good fathers, they leave a legacy and, hopefully, a better world.

Eric Olofson (B.A. Concordia College; M.S. and Ph.D. University of Oregon) is assistant pofessor of Psychology at Wabash College. Since coming to Wabash in 2008, he has supervised student research on a variety of topics, including father-child relationships, figurative language understanding in children with autism spectrum disorders, and increasing pro-social behavior in kindergarten classrooms.

What Works? Conference...Full story

10 Takeaways from the What Works Conference