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How Much Do Fathers Influence Sons’ Masculinity?

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Aug 1, 2023


Growing up I barely knew my dad. He wasn’t around very much. When he was, he rarely spoke to me, except for the occasional raging when I spilled my milk at the dinner table.

I often share the story of my “father wound” when I speak on the importance of father involvement in children’s lives or train on one of the fatherhood programs of National Fatherhood Initiative® (NFI). But despite my father’s emotional and, eventually, physical absence from my life, I’ve often wondered how much the manhood model he provided influenced my masculinity.

I’d like to think not very much. And yet, as an anthropologist, I recognize the powerful influence of parents in transmitting cultural norms to their offspring. Fathers transmit a lot in their absence, after all, not just in their presence.

That’s why I’ve long been fascinated by the research on the intersection between fatherhood and masculinity. What boys learn about masculinity from their fathers and other men has a powerful influence on the kind of fathers they become. But despite that knowledge, there’s been little empirical research on how much fathers’ masculinity affects their sons’ masculinity; in other words, how much fathers’ following of their culture’s norms around masculinity affects how much their sons follow those same norms. 

Recent research from Australia attempts to plug the gap in that research. Using national data from Ten to Men: The Australian Longitudinal Study on Male Health, researchers examined the transmission of masculine ideals between 743 father figures (fathers and other co-resident males) and 839 adolescent boys and young men (age 15-20) who lived with them. The researchers used a shortened version of the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory to measure the congruence (or strength) of fathers and sons following 11 masculine norms. 

What did they find?

They found moderate, positive associations between fathers’ and sons’ following of those norms. They also found that fathers’ religiosity increased the strength of those associations. The more religious the father, the stronger the associations between his and his son’s masculine norms.

The association between fathers’ and sons’ masculine norms is one of the reasons NFI’s evidence-based and evidence-informed programs address masculinity in helping build healthy men and fathers. Indeed, we dedicate entire portions of our programs to the importance of adopting norms of healthy masculinity, such as a nurturing approach to self-care, co-parenting, and child discipline. All too often fathers learn unhealthy norms of masculinity from their fathers and other men, such as those that lead to a lack of self-care, poor communication with the other parent, and harsh, harmful child discipline. 

I encourage you to read the study and share it with others who serve fathers. In addition to learning about the results of this study, you’ll learn about other research that touches on this vital area in fatherhood. 

In working with dads, do you explore the impact of the masculine norms they follow on their fathering?

If so, do you help fathers unpack how the masculine norms they follow are influenced by their own fathers’ masculine norms?

Learn more about the Father Engagement Academy by National Fatherhood Initiative

Topics: father-son relationships, fathers role, Featured, General Fatherhood Program Resources, General Fatherhood Research & Studies, masculinity

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