A growing body of multidisciplinary research is considering how fathers’ health consciousness, practices, and outcomes relate to their children’s quality of health and care. One implication from this research is in understanding and accounting for how fathers make decisions regarding their health and style of fathering.
Although the public has disproportionately focused on how women’s behavior influences fetal risks, emerging research highlights that it is equally important to hold men accountable for the health problems of their children.
Men’s actions prior to their children’s birth can impact the latter’s health. For example, fathers who are exposed to toxic health conditions at work and war, and who engage in smoking, drinking and drug use, can experience sperm damage, subsequently affecting fetal development.
In addition to direct biological influences, how fathers treat and interact with their spouses can indirectly shape the woman’s prenatal and early postnatal behaviour and stress levels. Women in more stable and supportive marital relationships are more likely to receive prenatal care, and less likely to smoke, drink or abuse drugs during pregnancy.
Furthermore, both resident and nonresident fathers have many opportunities to affect their children’s health beliefs after the early infancy stages. Research indicates that fathers’ lack of exercise, poor eating, excessive drinking and smoking predicts the same behaviour among their adolescent children.
Masculine Body Images, Caregiving Ideals
While fathers’ and children’s health are closely connected, adult men are often poor role models for healthy behaviour. At the heart of this problem are men’s ideologies about gender, including how they see their own bodies, construct images of manliness, and perceive fathering and caregiving.
These ideologies are produced and reinforced across various spaces, such as organised sports, interpersonal relationships and workplaces, where men are bombarded with messages encouraging them to be stoic, risk-taking, and tough, and conversely, discouraged from expressing vulnerability or femininity.
For example, the sports world ironically often breeds unhealthy practices, drug and alcohol abuse, pain, and injury. Here, boys learn the primacy of the “pain principle”– that they must be tough enough to ignore their pain and do whatever it takes to get the job done, or risk losing their position on the team.
Such ideologies extend beyond the sports world, and are reinforced by the risk-taking or potentially self-destructive behaviour of male peers.
Men’s health advocates have over the years sought to challenge perceptions of self-care as feminine, and of caregiving as “women’s work”. However, mainstream cultural messages downplay fathers’ caregiving capacity and ability to address children’s health-care needs.
Parenting magazines and books are often tailored to informing mums more than dads about how to care for their children.
Masculine ideologies also result in men forming less intimate and more competitive friendship styles, which discourage them from discussing their insecurities about fathering with other men or from focusing on children’s needs.
These male friendship styles further suggest that fathers are more likely to be excluded from parental networks in which social support and childcare information are shared.
Promoting Health-Conscious Fathering
In order to promote health-conscious fathering, we must start by understanding fathers’ lives as men, and the diverse factors, especially cultural conventions, that affect their choices and priorities.
Getting large numbers of men to see health-conscious fathering as “good fathering” and to make healthy choices despite cultural constraints, will require broad public support and an intensive public health service campaign.
At the individual level, men themselves can also regularly encourage one another to be more attentive to their own and their children’s health, thereby altering individual commitments and choices.
Such shifts are particularly significant in environments where male respect holds sway: locker rooms, fraternities and work sites. Of course, these efforts also need to be augmented by men’s partners.
For men with poorer socio-economic resources, national initiatives to enact structural changes will be critical. These include improvements in access to fresh food, healthcare facilities, substance abuse programmes, recreation sites, and organised sports, so that more fathers and their children have healthy options.
Schools and other youth organisations can also start men early by offering teenage and young adult males comprehensive instruction on reproductive health, and on the impact of fathers’ health on their children.
Worksites are another important place where men can be encouraged to make better decisions about eating, exercise, stress management, and substance use, and receive medical check-ups and education about how these experiences matter for their children’s health.
Workplace policies, reinforced by more father-friendly corporate cultures, can ensure fathers have increased access to flexible schedules and family-leave time. These benefits make it easier for fathers to accompany their sick children to medical visits and provide hands-on care for them.
Healthcare institutions can also find more innovative ways of integrating fathers into their children’s paediatric care. This includes providing more convenient evening and weekend hours, making operations more male-friendly and coordinating new fatherhood programmes with interventions to curb smoking, drinking and drug-use.
Various social circumstances make it difficult for boys and men to forge and sustain healthy lifestyles and transmit similar values and benefits to their children.
Promoting social change that challenges these constraints and expands the range of choices men see for themselves must involve a multilevel approach incorporating national policies, community-based measures, workplace agendas, family support, and individual commitments.
Ultimately, if men adopt healthier behaviours for themselves, they can more readily model such behaviours and authentically encourage their children to do the same.
The article Healthy Dad, Healthy Kids written by Professor William Marsiglio was published in Contexts, Volume 8, Number 4, Fall 2009, pp. 22-27 (6). Contexts is a quarterly magazine that makes sociology interesting and relevant to anyone interested in how society operates. It is a publication of the American Sociological Association, edited by Doug Hartmann and Chris Uggen at the University of Minnesota. For more info, see: http://contexts.org/articles/fall-2009/healthy-dads-healthy-kids/
William Marsiglio is a professor of sociology at the University of Florida (U.S.A.) and a Fellow of the National Council on Family Relations. He has written extensively on the social psychology of fathering and men’s sexuality, fertility, reproductive health, and mentoring of children. He has lectured at national and international conferences on fatherhood and consulted on national surveys about male sexuality and fatherhood. He has published seven books including: Men on a Mission: Valuing Youth Work in Our Communities (2008), Situated Fathering: A Focus on Physical and Social Spaces (Ed., 2005), Stepdads: Stories of Love, Hope, and Repair (2004), Sex, Men, and Babies: Stories of Awareness and Responsibility (2002), and Procreative Man (1998). His current collaborative book project with Kevin Roy, anchored in seven qualitative data sets, seeks to inform public/private initiatives to promote a more engaged, nurturing style of fathering in the United States.
Abstract by The DadsforLife Resource Team, which comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads. View the original article here.
First published on 28-04-2011.