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The Father Factor


How Mass Media Portray Dads & What You Can Do About It

Posted by Ryan Sanders

It's easy to complain about the negative fatherhood stereotypes that mass media often portrays. But, rarely do I see the depth of information and application of research into practical tips for leaders than what can be found in the following article from NFI's president, Christopher A. Brown.

Brown recently wrote a fasinating article titled, "Americans' View of Fathers' Competency as Parents Through a Mass Media Lens" at the request of Zero to Three Journal. Chris has over a decade of experience working with fathers at NFI, and in this article you can see his gift of applying science and research to explain culture and help individuals and organizations encourage more involved fathers. Let's talk about it...


Brown's article was written to raises awareness among professionals in the field of infant mental health. But, you will no doubt see this information can be used by a much wider audience. Brown points out from the research that TV is still one of the major forms of mass media shaping our values and perceptions, from sitcoms to advertising and commercials.

He reveals some telling stats on America's use of TV, particularly: 

  • Nearly every home (97%) has at least one TV
  • The average home contains nearly 3 TVs.
  • Americans watch TV 3-5 hours a day.
  • Adults watch nearly 38% more TV than children.

The Fatherhood Image in TV and Advertising
From Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best to Al Bundy in Married...With Children and Jay Pritchett of Modern Family, TV dads are usually portrayed as foolish, no matter what race or socioeconomic status is depicted.

The portrayal of fathers in commercials and advertising play a huge role in how we see fathers. Studies show commercials rarely portray men as nurturers. Brown points out one study found "when fathers were included in commercials, none of them were portrayed as nurturers whereas half of mothers were portrayed as nurturers (Gentry & Harrison, 2010)." 

Brown says that fathers are still often portrayed by consumer brands as one extreme or the other. On the one side fathers are shown as incompetent, foolish, and emotionally disconnected as parents. "The double standard involves competent, wise, emotionally connected mothers who must often rescue those fathers," says Brown. He cites Lowe's and LG for his research

But thankfully, there's the other extreme. Brands who show dads as competent, nurturing, and emotionally healthy parents. Brown cites General Mills Canada and Toyota as two such brands. General Mills' #HowToDad and Toyota's 2015 Super Bowl campaign "One Bold Choice Leads to Another" campaign promoted positive fatherhood images. The General Mills and Toyota campaigns show the reality of parenting today. As Chris points out: 

"The influence of parents as partners in raising children is all aspects of domestic life has continued to grow. Fathers have taken on a steadily increasing share of the parenting load in recent decades (USA Today, 2013). Fathers spend more time than ever with their children generally, grocery and retail shopping for the family, and doing housework (e.g., cooking and cleaning). Fathers are also more focused than ever on the desire to balance work and family. Indeed, they're often more conflicted than mothers in this regard (Aumann, Galinsky, & Matos, 2011)."

Why is Fathers' Portrayal Important?
Research is clear that a child needs the presence and involvement of his/her father. We know that kids who grow up with involved fathers are better off across all physical, emotional, mental, and social outcomes than a child who grows up without his/her father. So, we can deduct that fathers' involvement is as least as important as mothers' involvement to the healthy development of the child. 

Sadly, parents and professionals are often not aware of this evidence, and so their views aren't informed and shaped by this education. If mass media is getting fatherhood wrong, what about parents and professionals who've had negative experiences with their fathers/husbands/partners of their own children?

This kind of negative slide is what Chris says can lead to the "ultimate detriment of children and families." He says:

"When professionals hold a negative view of fathers, they are reluctant to engage fathers and may unwittingly support negative maternal views of fathers by not encouraging the mothers to involve fathers. Professionals also reinforce fathers' negative view of themselves by not proactively engaging fathers to show them they can be good parents."

What You Can Do?
Brown writes more in depth in his article about how we view fathers and how that view effects us. But he doesn't stop there. He closes his article with helpful ideas of what professionals (like you!) can do to counteract the negative portrayals of fathers.

Remember, this is all about the well-being of children. So, the message that dad can be competent and involved only helps the cause -- it does not hurt. If you are a professional (educator or not) you have a special role in shaping the view of fathers' competency. 

From TV portrayals, to mass media advertising, and even digital and social media, seeking to counteract whatever bad or negative portrayals you've seen from dads in your life is important—for you and for those around you.

The following list will prove helpful in seeking to view fatherhood as you should—as important and vital to children. The following tips can be found in more detail in the full article here:

  • Identify whether parents have a positive or negative view of fathers' competency and potential competency. Brown suggests asking non-threatening, open-ended questions to identify the parent's view of the father and fathers in general.
  • Identify whether the TV shows and advertising parents watch support or don't support a positive view of fathers' competency. Ask parents about the ways in which fathers are portrayed in the TV shows and advertising parents watch. Ask whether those portrayals are realistic and how they support or don't support parents' view of fathers competency.
  • Encourage parents to watch TV shows that portray fathers as competent, nurturing parents. Make a list of TV shows to watch. Identify shows that portray fathers as competent and nurturing. It's fine if the father struggles in his role as long as he is competent and nurturing. You can also look for shows that include a healthy relationship between the father and mother, even if the parents aren't together. 
  • Encourage parents to pay attention to the TV shows their children watch and how those shows portray fathers. Children's shows can contain negative portrayals of fathers. These shows shape children's views of fathers in general. They can also reinforce a negative view a child might have of his own father, especially if the child's mother talks negatively about the father to or in front of the child. Encourage parents to talk with their children about the portrayals of fathers in the shows their children watch. Tell parents to expose their children to shows with positive portrayals and even to watch those shows together. 
  • Engage fathers right from the start. There are a number of ways professionals can engage fathers from their very first encounter with clients. Simple acts like including information on program intake forms that capture the father's information and more involved acts like requiring the father's presence (when feasible) at initial and subsequent parent engagements (e.g., home visits) send an important message—the father is important and valuable.
  • Provide parents with access to information, such as literature (e.g., brochures and guides) and websites, which discuss the importance of father involvement in children's lives or provide advice on how fathers can become more involved generally and in specific areas of children's lives (e.g., education and sports). Professionals should ensure that the sources of information are appropriate for a parent's literacy level and informed by research.
  • Conduct programs or workshops for fathers on father involvement or refer fathers to organizations that provide such programs or workshops. Increasing father involvement doesn't happen overnight. Some fathers need training on how to be a better father. There are fathering programs that last several months and workshops that last a day to a few days. Ensure that the programs and workshops are based on or informed by evidence on what works to increase father involvement. 
  • Provide literature or conduct programs or workshops for mothers on improving the relationships they have with the fathers of their children. Maternal gatekeeping is when a mother can inhibit a father's access to his child. A mother can do so consciously or unconsciously whether she and the father are married, cohabitating, or never married. There are resources, programs, and workshops that seek to address maternal gatekeeping by raising mothers' awareness of this phenomenon and encouraging mothers to loosen unnecessary restrictions on fathers' access to their children.
  • Assess the "father readiness" of professionals' organizations and implement strategies and tactics to increase father readiness. Professionals rarely practice in a vacuum. They are usually part of an organization that is dedicated to or has a focus on infant mental health (or another specific area) and work with parents. The culture and practices of an organization influence the professional's work with parents. An organization that believes, for example, in the value of fathers will encourage a professional to engage fathers and, hopefully, provide resources (e.g., funds and training) to help the professional with that task. An organization that doesn't value fathers will erect barriers to a professional's attempts to engage fathers. Tools exists that help professionals—indeed, entire organizations—assess an organization's willingness and readiness to engage fathers and create no-cost and low-cost strategies and tactics to increase father readiness (see NFI's Father Friendly Checkup). 

The culture and mass media messages we see daily create a challenging atmosphere in which to engage fathers and create a culture where father involvement is important. Digital and social media increase this challenge. Whether you are combating negative portrayals of fatherhood in media, in your place of work, or in your own family, you can be a positive impact on a child. You can send a powerful message about the importance of fathers to the well-being of children in your life. Whether you've seen a great dad or not—you no doubt understand that creating more dads who are involved is a vital mission.

Please read our president, Christopher A. Brown's, full article by downloading the PDF here. It's only available for only a limited time.

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