New study links masculine traits with positive fathering

Published on Wednesday, 23 June 2021
Last updated on Monday, 21 June 2021

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Although many modern dads steer away from the hardcore authoritarianism of their forefathers, research out of America suggests that traditional masculine characteristics, like competitiveness and dominance, can actually have a positive effect on some men’s parenting.

As long as ‘manly’ fathers believe they should also be nurturing, it seems there are benefits to be had for men, women and children.

Here, we explore The Ohio State University’s research in more detail and see what it means for 21st Century fathers and their families.

Who was involved in this research?

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is a psychology professor at The Ohio State University and she’s been leading a long-term study called the New Parents Project, which is following 182 mum and dad couples, from before their first child’s birth until the child turns seven.

The project is looking at how family relationships grow and affect youngsters’ social and emotional development. There’s a particular focus on father-child relationships, and as part of this longitudinal research, Professor Schoppe-Sullivan and her team wanted to see how stereotypically masculine traits impact on fathers’ parenting.

To do this, they asked some dads-to-be to complete a variety of questionnaires in the last trimester of their partner’s pregnancy:

  • The men were asked to rate themselves on these seven stereotypically masculine characteristics:
  1. Competitive
  2. Daring
  3. Adventurous
  4. Dominant
  5. Aggressive
  6. Courageous, and
  7. Stands up to pressure.

A four-point rating scale was used, so the men could decide whether each trait was, ‘Not at all like me,’ ‘Very much like me’ or somewhere in between.

  • The research team also measured the impact of a negative masculine trait – hostile sexism.

To do this, they asked the men how much they agreed with 11 statements, such as, ‘Feminists are making unreasonable demands of men’, and whether they thought men or women should be the main earners for the family.

  • As well as looking stereotypical ‘manly’ traits, it was also important to measure the men’s nurturing father role beliefs.

The researchers did this by asking the respondents to rate how much they agreed with nine statements, including ‘Men should share with child care, such as bathing, feeding and dressing the child.’

Once this self-rating process was completed, the research team waited for the parenting to begin!

Nine months after the baby was born, they observed the dads interacting with their infants, both by themselves and with the child’s mother, then rated the men on their positive parenting behaviour and how well they co-parented with their partner.

What predictable – and unpredictable – results emerged from the study?

The researchers weren’t surprised to find that the men who believed they should have a nurturing father role had higher-quality interactions with their baby and were better at co-parenting with their child’s mum.

Hostile sexism was not linked to positive parenting, but when it came to the other masculine traits, the researchers were surprised to find that, ‘The more men said they fit the stereotypical definition of ‘real men,’ the more they were also rated as showing good parenting behaviour.’

In other words, old-fashioned masculine traits were linked with better modern fathering.

Professor Schoppe-Sullivan says the dads who saw themselves as, ‘Competitive and adventurous and the other masculine traits, tended to be really engaged with their kids. They were not checked out.’

She suggests that this high-involvement as a father might be linked with success as a careerman. For instance, ‘These dads may be saying that being a father is an important job, too, and I’m going to use the same traits that help me succeed at work to make me a successful father.’

That said, the quality of a father’s parenting was found to be unrelated to the belief that men should provide the majority of income in the family.

What does this American study mean for all families?

Although every dad is different and you don’t need strong masculine traits to connect with your child and raise them well, this study is food for thought.

It suggests that balancing a ‘manly’ nature with nurturing beliefs can bring benefits for some dads, and Professor Schoppe-Sullivan says, ‘If fathers can preserve the best of these stereotypically masculine characteristics, without the negatives, like hostile sexism, that would be good for families.’

There’s no doubt that children benefit from high-quality interactions with their dads, mums benefit when the parenting load is shared, and positive parenting feels good for fathers.

Although Professor Schoppe-Sullivan recognises that her study doesn’t speak for everyone (the respondents were all highly educated and in dual-income couples), she says some men are looking for new, and fulfilling ways, to be a father.

She explains that, ‘These men are combining traditional aspects of masculinity with new nurturing ideals to create new fathering identities,’ and if this blend of love, care, courage and competitiveness results in better parenting, then that’s a positive.


Ohio State News

In related news…

How to Dad puts a funny spin on fathering, so if you feel like a giggle, head to YouTube and see what this Kiwi dad gets up to with his little girl!

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