Today’s men express their masculinity in different ways. Some adhere to more traditional models of masculinity, characterized by beliefs in male superiority and approval of risky or violent behavior. Others embrace more progressive views.
But how do men develop their ideas, beliefs and behaviors related to masculinity?
Us new study addresses this question by focusing on an important factor that influences how young men express their masculinity: their fathers.
Our research focused on the question: do young men ‘copy’ their fathers’ masculinity?
We found that young men whose fathers support more traditional forms of masculinity are more likely to do so themselves.
This highlights the critical role fathers play in guiding boys toward healthier ideas of masculinity.
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We analyzed data from 839 pairs of 15- to 20-year-old men and their fathers. This data comes from a great Australian national survey on men’s health.
The survey asked men a set of 22 scientifically validated questions about how they felt and behaved in relation to many issues of masculinity. For example, they were asked about:
the significance of work and social status for their sense of identity
their view of showing emotions and self-reliance
their approval of risk-taking and violent behavior
the importance they placed on appearing heterosexual and having multiple sex partners
and their beliefs about winning, dominance over others, and men’s power over women.
Taken together, the answers to these questions gave us an insight into whether the men who took part in the study adopted more of a traditional or progressive form of masculinity. They also enabled us to compare fathers’ and sons’ expressions of masculinity.
What we found
We found that, on average, young men are slightly more traditional in the way they express their masculinity than their fathers.
On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 representing high conformance to traditional masculinity and 0 representing low conformance, the average masculinity score for young men was 44.1 and for their fathers was 41.
Using statistical models, we then examined whether there is a relationship between how traditional a father’s masculinity is and how traditional their son’s masculinity is. To ensure we isolated the effect of fathers’ masculinity, the models took into account other factors that may also determine young men’s expressions of masculinity. These include their age, education, sexual orientation, religion, household income and place of residence.
The results were clear. Young men who scored high on traditional measures of masculinity often had fathers who also scored high.
We identified similar results for 20 of 22 individual masculinity questions. The strongest father-son associations emerged for questions about condoning violence, the importance of appearing heterosexual, and the desirability of having multiple sexual partners.
This indicates that these aspects of masculinity are relatively more likely to be “passed on” from father to son.
What our findings mean
Like it is well established, social learning is important in shaping young people’s attitudes and behavior. Although fathers are not the only influence, our study suggests that young men learn a lot about how to be a man from their fathers. This is an intuitive finding, but we had little empirical evidence of it until now.
Confirming that fathers “pass on” their beliefs about masculinity to their sons has far-reaching implications. For example, it largely explains why traditional models of masculinity remain entrenched in today’s society. Our research indicates that breaking this cycle requires fathers to be involved in the mix.
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Policies, interventions and programs aimed at promotion healthy masculinity among young people are more likely to work if they also target their fathers. This proposal is in line with a growing number of targeted programs interesting fathers in positive parenting.
In addition, our findings underscore the potential long-term effects of successful intervention. If a program succeeds in helping young people to develop positive masculinityit is likely that – if they become fathers themselves – the masculinity of their own children will also be positively affected.