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."
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?
While that struggle feels unique to today's men, it's actually an ongoing trend, says historical sociologist Ralph LaRossa, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University who studies family, gender and fatherhood.
The culture and conduct of fatherhood has always ebbed and flowed. In colonial America, many fathers spent all day working with their children on the family farm. Then the Industrial Revolution pulled fathers into factories and required a complete work/life rebalancing.
In the 1920s, media portrayed men as bumbling and incompetent fathers, while in the 1930s, men were increasingly encouraged to play more of a child nurturing role since the Depression made economic providing so difficult, says LaRossa, author of "The Modernization of Fatherhood." By the 1940s, fathers were seen as noble protectors who helped their children by serving the country during war.
The post-war boom of the 50s and TV shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver" promoted a traditional image of fatherhood, which was upended during the 60s feminist movement, bringing a second wave of "new fatherhood" that encouraged fathers to, again, engage emotionally with their children.
"I think it's important that people have a sense of history so that they understand that today's fathers are not the first generation to change a diaper," LaRossa says.
When fathers appreciate that the culture of fatherhood fluctuates, they realize they're not necessarily destined to become amazing simply through some type of fatherhood "evolution," LaRossa says. Effective fathering takes constant work and introspection.
More than money
But time for introspection is rare when dad is working several jobs or long hours just to make ends meet.
"Fatherlessness and marital dissolution are mostly due to economic difficulties," says Nomaguchi. "So to keep telling fathers, 'You should keep staying in relationships' or 'keep being responsible for (your) kids' is probably not helping."
When financial stress breaks up relationships, these fathers — who are trying to be the providers they think society demands — become non-resident fathers, Nomaguchi says, which not only affects them psychologically, but makes it difficult to be close to their children.
"Perhaps because they are socialized to be providers, men seem to take financial conflict particularly hard," writes Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project and an assistant professor of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University. He found that couples who argue over money at least once a week were over 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who disagreed about finances just a few times each month.
To lessen financial conflict, experts say society needs to redefine words like "provider," "breadwinner" and quit tying the idea of masculinity to a paycheck.
"A dad taking care of his child at home is not called babysitting, it's called parenting," says Kenneth Braswell, executive director of Fathers Incorporated, a New York non-profit devoted to responsible fatherhood and mentoring. "We need to take some time to redefine what masculinity is in this time and day, because it's not what it was 40 years ago."
Data show that men spend 6.5 hours a week caring for children, up from the 2.6 hours in 1965, according to Pew Research. Men also spend about 12.5 hours a week doing housework, compared to 6 hours in 1976. (Women now spend 16.5 hours on housework, down from 26 hours a week) according to the University of Michigan's Panel Study on Income Dynamics. In 2013, the U.S. Census listed 214,000 full-time stay-at-home dads, though that number is disputed as low.
Glazer still hears people refer to "stay-at-home dads" with skepticism and scorn, which is unfortunate.
"The idea of spending more time with your baby is discouraged, and looked down upon as not man enough," he says. "(Guys tell me) 'Everyone's telling me I'm less of a man as a result of this, but it feels right, so I'm confused about it.'"
The Good Men Project, which went from a book, to a film to an online conversation about manhood, combats that confusion by "challenging confining cultural notions of what a 'real man' must be," according to the website.
Articles on everything from sports, politics and religion to parenting, sex and aging attempt to shatter stereotypes that men are uninterested fathers or paycheck-driven robots.
"The average guy really wants to do the right thing," says founder Tom Matlack. "He increasingly wants to be a very involved father, wants to find a way to have real intimacy with (his) partner, is trying to figure out how to balance work and family — very much like women have been struggling with for the last 50 years. In a way, it's like feminism on its head."
A few times a month, a handful of men from Jervis Lee's church in Kearns, Utah, go fishing, camping, maybe watch a movie. They're even forming a bowling league.
It's a chance for Lee to be around other fathers who are also trying to make sense of toddler tantrums or teenage rebellion. They swap stories and encourage each other before heading home, refueled.
"We've been taught that asking another man is a sign of weakness and we've been taught not to be weak," says Jervis, a father of eight. "Realize you're human and you're going to make mistakes, and it's OK to ask for help."
For Jervis, who grew up without his father in Bassett, Virginia, help came from uncles, friends and other male role models. Now that he's older, he's reconnected with his father and developed close ties with men in his church and community.
"Society can't teach men how to be men," he says. "Only men can teach men to be men."
While society may criticize fathers for failing to live up to expectations, many of them have no idea where to begin. Experts and advocates say crucial instruction can come through the simple act of talking with, and learning from, other fathers.
"The way we socialize men into becoming responsible fathers is critical," says Sean Brotherson, a professor and extension family science specialist at North Dakota State University and co-editor of the book, "Why Fathers Count: The Importance of Fathers and Their Involvement with Children." "We want to provide fathers with meaningful role models (that teach them) the possibilities and power that come from being involved as a caring father."
Young boys, unlike girls, rarely get to babysit or care for children, thus when they become fathers they feel inadequate and underprepared, laments Marti Erickson, a developmental psychologist and former director of the Children Youth and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota.
Seeing that, mothers — who act as gatekeepers to protect their children — often criticize or take over, pushing the father out of the process and making him feel even more inadequate, Erickson says.
At Alpha Center, a pregnancy resource center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, new fathers learn how to change a diaper and soothe a crying baby, plus the dangers of shaken baby syndrome and what a safe carseat looks like.
But even better than the life skills courses are the one-on-one mentoring sessions between new fathers and fathers in the community, says Leslee Unruh, Alpha Center founder and president.
"So many of them don't know the first thing about how to be a dad, and they want to be," she says. "If they're given the opportunity and someone comes along side of them, they are up for it."
Mentored fathers are so eager to come back and share what they've learned that there's currently a mentor waiting list, Unruh says.
Vance Simms has seen that hunger to connect with other fathers during his free six-hour "Fathers Mentoring Fathers" workshops in Phoenix.1 comment on this story
"We gather for sporting events we don't gather together to share our hearts, men don't do that" says Simms, executive director of the non-profit Father Matters. "But when you set up an environment to do that, you get grown men crying, hugging, exchanging phone numbers."
Support and mentoring groups like this could happen more often, Simms says, because they're easy to set up. But it's up to men to make the decision to come. To change.
"There are men that show up and might have four kids, but that doesn't mean he knows how to father," Simms says. "The goal is to take (him) from where (he is) to where (he) wants to be."
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