Nate Edwards, BYU Photo 2018
Fatherhood norms are changing alongside masculinity norms. Most dads spend more time playing and caring for their kids than previous generations of fathers.

SALT LAKE CITY — Most fathers today believe their roles in the lives of their children should be nurturing and engaged. And they're putting those ideals into action, which is good news not just for the kids, but for the dads and for the moms, too.

That's according to a new study by researchers at BYU and Ball State University that finds entire families thrive as modern fathers move away from "toxic" aspects of "manliness" that limit men to being authority figures, breadwinners and disciplinarians, but not nurturers.

The study is published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

"Men who think it's not manly to play with their kids, to show warmth and affection, or that they're spoiling the children by not spanking them or yelling — that's a style of fathering that has substantial negative consequences to their kids," says Kevin Shafer, associate professor of sociology at BYU and a study co-author. "Kids flourish when they have parents who are really involved in their lives, who they can count on, who are emotionally available and that care for them and who explain the differences between right or wrong, not just use fear."

"The more that fathers are involved, the more positive the outcomes for kids," adds lead author Richard J. Petts, associate professor of sociology at Ball State. "The most important finding, in my opinion, is a growing mentality that fathers should be engaged and nurturing and expressive." He notes that dads generally see the change as "good and necessary" and they are spending more time with their children.

The findings were "pretty clear cut" that loving, engaged dads benefits kids, according to Petts, who says he and Shafer — two men who first met while pursuing graduate degrees at Ohio State University and who are each now fathers of young children — undertook the study to see what motivates and what prevents father-child involvement.

Old vs. new

"Men often struggle to meet both traditional and contemporary fathering expectations," the study says. "The expectations of fatherhood remain rooted in a traditional gendered division of labor reinforced by hegemonic masculinity. That is, the primary expectations for fathers reflect dominant masculine norms such as providing and lack of emotional expression." The "new fatherhood ideal … emphasizes roles more traditionally aligned with maternal parenting expectations, such as caregiving."

Fatherhood is shifting terrain. Men are being pressed like never before to find work-family balance that includes times to play with and help raise their children. For many dads, that's a key part of the job — and not just because more women work outside the home.

In bygone years, a dad who made money and laid down the law for unruly kids had met his paternal obligation. Some still believe that. The researchers found that between one-fourth and one-third of the modern-day fathers surveyed still cleave to that view of fatherhood. "Those highly masculine dads reject the idea that they should be more than that," says Shafer.

The researchers say the study also found less paternal involvement correlated with "fathers who exhibit negative aspects of traditional masculinity."

Shafer says some people bristle at terms like "toxic masculinity," thinking it's a generalized view of men. Men have laudable traits, too, like being goal-oriented and loyal. Providing for kids is good. The phrase is an umbrella that covers masculine traits that emphasize unhealthy, stereotypical behaviors like over-aggression, radical self-reliance, limiting one's emotional displays to anger, avoiding anything feminine and having poor or detached relationships, he says.

Unhealthy masculine traits are found in many cultures, and among "authoritarian" parents, who are low on warmth and high on discipline.

Most American dads are not like that. The nationally representative study, which surveyed 2,194 men, instead found most men are frequent caregivers to their offspring and have more egalitarian attitudes and roles at home than their parents or grandparents likely had.

"Fathers continue to navigate changing social expectations," says BYU graduate student Lee Essig, the study's third author, in a written statement. "As current social trends are pushing for men's increased familial involvement, we see more fathers stepping up to engage more actively in their children's lives in various ways. As we teach boys and men to be more emotionally aware and cultivate emotional wellbeing, these men and boys will be able to become better fathers for their children, as they will be able to provide for them not only through financial contributions, but by being emotionally and mentally present for their children and their well-being."

How dads interact

On average, dads of younger kids interact with them several times a week, while those with older children may interact once or several times, according to the study. Fathers of older kids also "knew a lot" about the activities in which their kids engage.

Dads with younger kids said they behave warmly toward their younger children, while dads of older kids said that's true somewhere between "often" and "always."

Those with older children generally said their kids count on them for emotional support.

Petts said young fathers were more likely to identify with the new, more involved fatherhood ideal, but age alone didn't explain different approaches to fatherhood.

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While warm father-child relationships have been increasing, the trend retains an aspirational aspect. A Pew Research Center report published earlier this year also found dads are spending more time caring for their children than 50 years ago. But as study author Gretchen Livingston wrote, "Still, most (63 percent) say they spend too little time with their kids and a much smaller share (36 percent) say they spend the right amount of time with them."

As they navigate fatherhood, Shafer, Petts and Essig say dads should remind themselves that feelings are a good thing and expressing them is an important aspect of parenting well. "Caring" and "hands-on" are valuable traits for dads and will benefit and shape their kids, who notice and learn from what they see modeled.