by Eric Olofson
I have the rare privilege to spend each fall semester with 40 thoughtful young men in a psychology class dedicated to investigating the empirical literature concerning fatherhood. On the first day of the most recent section of the course, I asked how many were excited to become fathers.
All but one hand shot up.
I then asked them to write about why they wanted to be good fathers, and their responses were thoughtful, sometimes profound, and most of all, filled me with optimism about the future.
Two themes emerged from their responses. The first theme is that these young men were excited to be fathers. They discussed the joy of having their children run into their arms after returning from work, or the joy of seeing their children accomplish their goals. Many students discussed a desire to pass along the family name and traditions, to serve as a link in a chain that extends to the past and the future.
The second dominant theme was that of generativity, a term coined by Erik Erickson to refer to the concern for fostering the next generation. According to Erickson, generativity becomes important in middle age, when parents’ firstborn children are moving through high school. My students, long before this age, were virtually unanimous in articulating a desire to raise children who will influence the world.
Even so, the motivations for being generative varied.
Many students were motivated by their own fathers, either to provide the next generation with the good fathering that they had received, or to improve on the failures of their own fathers. (Interestingly, however, while their answers demonstrated an acute sense of what their fathers did well, they often lacked a sense of how they did it. As one student, Dan, noted, “While my father was present in my life, I don’t feel like I have any real preparation or knowledge regarding being a dad.”)
Other generative motivations were inextricably tied to their identities. For example, Tucker discussed the intimate link between fathering and masculinity. He said, “Honestly, I would feel like less of a man if I was never a father. I think I would look back on my life and think to myself that I had failed to contribute anything to society, that I had never raised up children to have a better life than my own, to make the world a better place.”
Tucker’s comments add richness to Erickson’s concepts. Generativity is not simply a concern of parents, or even of the sex biologically equipped to bring forth life. It is also a distinctly masculine trait.
In short, my students want to learn to be good fathers because that is what good men do; they do their part to make the world a better place.
Olofson is Associate Professor of Psychology at Wabash. This essay is excerpted from Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, & Educating Men–What Works? a booklet edited by Hampden-Sydney College President Chris Howard.
Photo by Kim Johnson