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Paternal Parenting: Mentoring counters media messages on fathering

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jason Bronson makes pancakes as he hugs his foster child Kaley at their home in West Valley City on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. All of the Bronson children are either adopted or foster children that will soon be adopted.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Dinner hasn't been over longer than 10 minutes, and Jason Bronson is out on the lawn with his wife and six children.

Matthew, 7, brings out the chalk and Bronson begins tracing around the "dead bodies" on the driveway. Thanks to her ponytail, 10-year-old Karlee ends up looking like a bunny while little Blake looks like an oversized gingerbread man.

Next, Bronson is dragged to the lawn for gymnastics with Jillian, 13, Kaley, 12 and Karlee, 10. It's admittedly not his favorite activity, but he does it because his girls love it.

"You don't have to be the smartest, best person to be a good dad," says Bronson, 39. "You just have to put in a lot of effort."

It's a mantra he learned from his dad, who, despite feeling insecure about his lack of handyman skills, still tackled several daunting-for-him projects.

"He tried it and it ended up OK," Bronson says. "I teach my kids, 'Don't be afraid to try new things. Try your best and fail, but just do it.' "

Through foster care, Bronson and his wife, Jessica, have tried to pass on that and other important lessons to the children who've come through their home over the past decade — five of whom they've adopted and a sixth whose paperwork will be finalized soon.

But that chain of paternal teaching and learning that Bronson experienced is being broken either by fatherless homes — nearly 24 million, or 1 in 3, children in America growing up in homes without a father — or by homes where fathers are ill-equipped or unprepared to be parents and role models. Rebuilding these connections is a life-long process, and experts say one of the most important tools is mentoring — both to the children, who will one day be fathers and mothers themselves, and to their dads.

In fact, a growing number of dads want to be more physically and emotionally involved in their chidren's lives, says Kei Nomaguchi, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University. The problem is, it's easier said than done.

Society and media offer little guidance, with mixed messages regarding manhood and fatherhood. Many fathers struggle because they didn't have a positive role model as a child. And on top of it all, says Nomaguchi, is the intense pressure to provide in a sagging economy.

"If you want to have a fulfilling life and you're a dad, it's important to really understand that being around your kids, trying to be focused on them, is probably one of the most important and meaningful things you can do in your life," says filmmaker Dana H. Glazer, who produced/directed "The Evolution of Dad." "(But) there's a lot of messaging that is trying to counter that, and it's really hard. There's a lot of pressure."

Defining dad

Andrew Behnke begins each community fathering class the same way — by pinning a foam heart onto the sleeves of the participating men, who may range from white-collar executives to men who haven't held a steady job in 10 years.

"I tell them to wear their hearts on their sleeves," says Behnke, a professor of human development at North Caroline State University. "There's a need in our culture to make that cool, for fathers to really own being a loving father as ... what it's all about."

Fathers are awash in confusing ideas about what it means to father. Television and movies often portray goofballs who are inept at housework and child care, or masculine men who don't show emotion or ask for help. As a result, many men feel lost, "without a map of how to live, how to be a father," Behnke says. The men he works with want to step up, but into what role exactly?

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