Of Dads and Men

New research shows where to focus if we want to change stereotypes about men.
Of Dads and Men
Image: Becca Tarter / Unsplash

Not many things can bring all of America together these days, but one thing that did was the charming video of Marc Daniels, the dad who danced onstage with his two-year-old daughter—all while holding his baby in his arms—when she got stage fright at her recital. It’s no wonder the video quickly went viral. In the midst of our current cultural confusion on the subject of masculinity, “Ballerina Dad” was the hero we needed.

Daniels’s sudden popularity isn’t just another cute story to entertain us for a few minutes. It signals something about what we’re looking for in men. And for Christians who are paying attention, it hints at something we can do about falling rates of male attendance at church.

The Scandal of Masculinity

The problem, for Christians, is that our culture’s current view of male characteristics seems to be completely at odds with the qualities that Jesus called upon us to demonstrate. When researchers recently asked participants how well various traits described the average man or woman, those participants tended to view men as being aggressive, forceful, selfish, greedy, conceited, unemotional, shallow, and egotistical. Furthermore, they viewed men as lacking many positive traits, such as being forgiving, generous, patient, supportive, gentle, considerate, devoted, clear thinking, and fair-minded.

From the #MeToo movement that was sparked by horrific stories of sexual assault to the male loneliness epidemic, we can see evidence of the fallout from our conception of manhood. And the number of scandals in the church involving sexual abuse, abuse of power, and poor treatment of marginalized groups makes it clear that the church is not immune to these problems.

How should churches respond to this crisis of masculinity? How can we make church “man- enough” to be appealing to men without encouraging poor behavior and perpetuating negative male stereotypes? How can we shift our view of what it means to be a man to one that more closely aligns with how Jesus desires us all to live?

For years, many well-meaning Christians have argued that all that’s needed is for church to be less feminine, as comedian Brad Stine put it when he founded the ministry GodMen to be a space in which “men can be men; raw and uninhibited; completely free to express themselves in the uniquely male way that only men understand.” But the trends we’ve just looked at suggest that this push for raw masculinity hasn’t been getting the results we hoped for.

Dads Hold the Key

New research suggests that one group of men might play a key role in helping us positively redefine male stereotypes: dads.

University of Colorado psychologists Bernadette Park and Sarah Banchefsky found that highlighting men’s role as dads led to more positive views of men than highlighting their role in the workforce. While participants viewed the typical male as aggressive, forceful, selfish, greedy, conceited, unemotional, shallow, and egotistical, they didn’t use any of these negative characteristics to describe the typical dad. They also viewed dads as having positive traits they didn’t see in the typical man, such as being supportive, devoted, clear-thinking, and mature.

Why do we view dads so differently from men, given that dads are men? The difference is that when we focus on the role men play as dads, it changes what comes to our minds when we think of men. It reminds us that men can also be nurturing, supportive, devoted, and generous.

And, when we treat men as if they are nurturing, supportive, devoted, and generous rather than aggressive, selfish, and shallow, they are more likely to be nurturing, supportive, devoted, and generous. Negative stereotypes—even subtle ones—can negatively affect people’s behavior.

Importantly, focusing on the role of dads gives us a way to encourage men to develop the kinds of traits Jesus desires us to have in a way that is still appealing to men. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, dads are just as likely as moms to say that being a parent is central to their identity. Men are playing a more active role in parenting than in previous decades. And the public is taking notice. From “Ballerina Dad” to the dad who got a tattoo on his head to match his son’s brain surgery scar, we applaud dads who step up for their kids in creative and loving ways.

Our expanding view of dads gives us reason to be optimistic. Banchefsky and Park found that although people viewed men as having changed relatively little over the past several decades, they viewed dads as having changed a lot. The researchers argue that as fathers get more involved, this should help change stereotypes of men that, for the most part, have remained fairly stable and inflexible.

Right now, men who aren’t dads are probably thinking, “What about me?” Good news: It’s not just the men who are dads who benefit. The researchers found that highlighting the social role of dads led to a broader, less restrictive, and more positive view of men as an entire group. Having greater flexibility in how to “be a man” can help us make room for all types of men, not just those who are dads or those who like to ride motorcycles and do CrossFit.

Not only can celebrating and encouraging dads help us redefine negative stereotypes and expectations of men, but the researchers also found that it can also help us avoid the negative backlash when men feel their status is threatened. In particular, they found that highlighting the role of dads made men less likely to oppose policies that benefited marginalized groups when they experienced a threat to their own status. When we shift our views of what it means to be a man to something that more closely exemplifies how Jesus instructed us all to live, everyone stands to benefit.

An Opportunity for the Church

In our current climate of low expectations and confusion about what it means to be a man, reflecting on the role of dads can be a helpful way forward for the church. It’s not enough to get men in the doors if their lives aren’t changed once they’re here. The church has a real opportunity to help shift our view of what it means to be a man to one that more closely aligns with how Jesus desires us all to live.

One practical way to do this is to provide opportunities for men to carry out these roles. Coordinate events for dads and their kids and encourage them to participate actively in family and youth events. Beyond that, provide opportunities for all men to mentor, teach, and coach kids who might lack male role models. Just as we often say that women who aren’t mothers can still exercise motherly gifts in the church, the same is true of men and fatherhood. If you want to see the true power of masculinity, just look at what happened when a middle school in South Dallas asked men to volunteer to attend a “Breakfast with Dads” with students who didn’t have a dad who was present in their lives. They were looking for 50 volunteers. Six hundred men showed up ready to invest in those kids.

Second, we can encourage fatherly roles and traits by showing that we value them in men. Instead of just talking about men in stereotypical ways, highlight the other roles men play and stress the importance of their more relational roles in their families, in the church, and in becoming more like our heavenly Father. Rather than taking jabs at dads for their parenting failures, treating them as second-class parents, or putting pressure on them to be perfect in yet another area of their life, encourage them and support them in their role.

With Father’s Day approaching, this is an ideal time to have these conversations. When doing so, we need to think about more than just what it means to be a dad; we need to think about how dads can help us understand what it means to be a man.

Jen Zamzow has a PhD in philosophy and cognitive science from the University of Arizona and teaches undergraduate ethics online for UCLA and Concordia University Irvine. She writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at jenzamzow.com.

July/August
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