Research considering how cultural factors influence fatherhood practices is generally scarce. Yet, culture, like other factors, including gender, socio-economic status, and nationality, influences fatherhood.
While research focused on socio-economic factors such as income and employment has produced relatively clear results, linking higher income and stable employment with more active father involvement, the link between culture and fatherhood is less understood and more complex.
The limited available studies show that fathers often differ across cultures on how they define and practise “active fatherhood”. A failure to understand these differences can cause practitioners to assume that norms in Western, middle-class, well-educated families are the model for involved parenting.
This article reviews the literature on fathering in diverse contexts, to provide a starting point for examining fatherhood across cultures, as well as to promote a more culturally-sensitive and strengths-based framework for social service practitioners working with culturally diverse fathers.
Debunking Common Cultural Stereotypes about Fatherhood
Many early studies of fatherhood in ethnic minority communities in Western countries have tended to use a “deficit model”. These models may examine the effects of father absence and focus on the lack of father-child activities, rather than identifying activities and impacts of those fathers who are present.
However, a summary of studies conducted over the 1980s and 1990s found inconsistent linkages between father’s ethnicity and their involvement with their children . Indeed, many researchers point out that closer analysis of fatherhood in ethnic minority communities often reveals a mixed picture, including culturally-based strengths that support involved fatherhood.
They also suggest that many ethnic minority fathers may not “measure up” to conventional norms of responsible fatherhood because they face economic difficulties or live apart from their children. However, these same barriers may open up opportunities for more unconventional, emotionally caring and nurturing styles of fathering.
The following section discusses relevant data from some of these studies, conducted on specific cultural groups, mostly in a Western context.
• Latino-American fathers: Some studies have supported negative stereotypes of Latino men as rigid, controlling, macho (conforming to traditional masculine roles), authoritarian and distant from their children, and more likely to inspire fear in their children. However, the strong familial orientation in many Latino communities may also result in fathers placing a greater value on spending time with children.
A 2004 study of low-income Mexican-American fathers found that compared to White American men, Mexican-American fathers were more involved in both masculine (hobbies, games, spectator events) and feminine (shopping, cooking, reading) activities with their children. This finding could indicate that nurturing and emotional modes of father-child interaction are more common in Latino culture than common stereotypes suggest.
• African-American fathers: A large-scale study of residential fathers (fathers who live with their children) of children aged between 5 and 18, shows that fathering activities differ across ethnic groups, after controlling for income, age, education and the socioeconomic conditions of wives or co-habitators.
The study found that African-American fathers are far more likely to monitor and supervise their children’s activities, and are more strict, cautionary, and authoritarian than White fathers.
Another study of residential fathers in Early Head Start (a national programme in the U.S. delivering early intervention to low-income families with infants and toddlers) found that African-American fathers report more frequently participating in caregiving activities (e.g., changing diapers and helping to use the toilet, helping with brushing teeth, and putting the child to bed) than Latino and White fathers.
This finding could suggest that African American fathers may be involved in different ways than had been previously reported, and that they may participate in more traditional maternal activities.
• South Asian fathers in the U.K: Stereotypes of South Asian, including Muslim fathers, tend to focus on the patriarchal norms of religion and culture in defining the father’s “proper” role as head of the household, moral guardian, and breadwinner, with nurturing children accorded lesser priority .
However, a UK study of fathers in four cultural groups (Bangladeshi Muslims, Pakistani Muslims, Gujarati Hindus and Punjabi Sikhs) found great diversity in how men performed their fathering role in practice, despite the importance of religious and ethnic identities to fathers in raising their children.
Fathers in all groups were closely involved in child care, with many actively distancing themselves from the “typical Asian father” (perceived as remote and authoritarian) and seeking to be close to or a friend to their children. Some active fathers also downplayed how involved they were in child care, when in front of their own parents, who could hold more traditional views of fathering.
• East Asian fathers: There is limited research on East Asian fatherhood. Several studies focus on the traditional role played by East Asian fathers, including that of assuming a disciplinary role and inculcating achievement values in their children. At the same time, East Asian parents in general tend to prize family connectedness, personal sacrifice for important others, self-improvement through education and hard work, which could lead to higher levels of involvement on some dimensions of fatherhood.
Implications for fatherhood practice
An understanding of various types of father involvement and how these may be affected by culture while planning fathering programmes or events, contributes to an atmosphere where all types of fathering are honoured and valued. This approach may also increase the outreach and success of such initiatives.
Furthermore, culture and faith often play a major role in how fathers evaluate their lifestyles and their children’s development. Interventions that align positively with fathers’ cultural commitments and that help them establish and maintain a sense of belonging to their cultures are therefore likely to be most productive.
The skills and awareness to positively recognise the role of culture are broadly described as “cultural competency”. Culturally competent practice models include knowledge about cultural traditions and practices but often add a reflexive component, where clinicians conduct a self-assessment of their own attitudes and beliefs about their own culture and the culture of their clients. This approach is intended to highlight potential conflict areas of attitudes, beliefs, and values, and should not over-emphasise or stereotype culture.
Lessons for Practitioners Who work with Culturally Diverse Fathers
A research summary on working with Muslim fathers by the U.K.-based Fatherhood Institute offers useful lessons to practitioners working with culturally diverse fathers, especially when the client’s faith differs from the practitioner’s own. These lessons are adapted below:
• Early fatherhood (and motherhood) are common and tend to be positively regarded in some communities. Acknowledging this perspective will require a different approach from professionals who may be used to more negative perceptions of early parenthood in other cultural traditions.
• Practitioners familiar with clients’ cultural beliefs may find it helpful to draw on appropriate cultural or even religious references to “permit” or encourage involved and intimate fathering.
• One study found fathers actively searching for information on fatherhood and parenting through the internet only on religious sites, suggesting that engagement with fathering issues via cultural portals is crucial.
• Practitioners working with fathers who subscribe to traditional gender norms must be able to help them re-negotiate fathering without any perceived loss of status and responsibility.
• Practitioners should be sensitive to the cultural connotations of some emotions: for many men and Asian men in particular, expressiveness and personal disclosure may be perceived as signifying weakness.
• Bilingual/bicultural matches between fathers and the professionals who engage with them are likely to be ideal. However, research shows workers’ skills and positive attitudes are still the most important, and likely to be more important than age, gender or even cultural heritage.
There remains a lack of studies on fatherhood in diverse cultural communities. Of those conducted, many face limitations of small samples. Nonetheless, they make the point that many fathers, including ethnic minority fathers, who may be stereotypically regarded as uninvolved, may in fact be involved with their children though not always in recognised ways.
The research also emphasises that the roles that fathers play are diverse and may be related to cultural and community norms. Practitioners working with fathers should thus be committed to considering cultural difference, and building on cultural and community strengths and resources, wherever possible.
1. Thomson, E., Hanson, T., & McLanahan, S.S. (1994). Family structure and child well-being: Economic resources versus parent socialization. Social Forces, 73, 221-242.
2. Palkovitz, R. (1997) ‘Reconstructing “involvement”: expanding conceptualizations of men’s caring in contemporary families’, in A. J. Hawkins and D. C. Dollahite (eds). Generative Fathering: Beyond Deficit Perspectives, pp. 200–16. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
3. Carter (2001); Hamer (1997); Lindholm (1997); Mincy (2002), as cited in Shears, J. (2007). Fathering activities and attitudes across race and ethnicity. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 5(3), 245-261.
4. Pleck’s (in press), as cited in Doherty, W. J., Kouneski, E. F., & Erickson, M. F. (1998). Responsible fathering: An overview and conceptual framework. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 277-292.
5. Jarrett et al. (2002); Townsend (2002), as cited in Miller, W., & Maiter, S (2008). Fatherhood and culture: Moving beyond stereotypical understandings. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work. 17(3), 279 — 300
6. Gonzalez-Lopez (2004), as cited in Miller, W., & Maiter, S (2008). Fatherhood and culture: Moving beyond stereotypical understandings. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work. 17(3), 279 — 300
7. Cabrera & Coll (2004), as cited in Miller, W., & Maiter, S (2008). Fatherhood and culture: Moving beyond stereotypical understandings. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work. 17(3), 279 — 300
8. Baca Zinn (1983); Vega (1990), as cited in Shears, J. (2007). Fathering activities and attitudes across race and ethnicity. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 5(3), 245-261.
9. Coltrane, Parke, and Adams (2004), as cited in Miller, W., & Maiter, S (2008). Fatherhood and culture: Moving beyond stereotypical understandings. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work. 17(3), 279 — 300.
10. Toth, J.F. & Xu, X. H. (1999). Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Fathers’ Involvement. Youth & Society, 31 (1), 76-99.
11. Shears, J. (2007). Fathering activities and attitudes across race and ethnicity. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 5(3), 245-261.
12. Khan, 2006, as cited in Fatherhood Institute (2010). Fatherhood Institute Research Summary: Muslim fathers. Fatherhood Institute.
13. Salway, S., Chowbey, P. & Clarke, L. (2009). Understanding the experiences of Asian fathers in Britain. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
14. Chao (1995); Chao and Tseng (2002); Yee et al. (2007), as cited in J. B. K, Koh., Y. Shao. & Q. Wang (2009). Father, mother and me: Parental value orientations and child self-identity in Asian American immigrants. Sex Roles, 60, 600–610.
15. Seto et al., 2010; Khan, 2006, as cited in Fatherhood Institute (2010). Fatherhood Institute Research Summary: Muslim fathers. Fatherhood Institute.
16. Tsang & George (1998), as cited in Miller, W., & Maiter, S (2008). Fatherhood and culture: Moving beyond stereotypical understandings. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work. 17(3), 279 — 300.
17. Fatherhood Institute (2010). Fatherhood Institute Research Summary: Muslim fathers. Fatherhood Institute.
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 07-06-2011.