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Expectant fathers learn about fatherhood from television, moreso than expectant mothers learn about motherhood, says Dr. Patty Kuo.


Dimwit Homer Simpson, goofy Phil Murphy of Modern Family, and methamphetamine maker Walter White from Breaking Bad are less-than-ideal television dads. Although the general public is sick of these unflattering images of fathers according to a poll conducted by the parenting website Netmums, the bumbling or even dangerous dad continues to be part of American television landscape. Does it even matter? Is exposure to these stereotypes actually harmful for families and fathers?

I conducted new research with University of Michigan faculty member and media expert Dr. Monique Ward with 201 first-time expectant mothers and fathers and surveyed how much they watched television featuring fathers and their attitudes about fathers’ roles within families. We wanted to learn whether watching dads on TV actually mattered for expectant parents’ beliefs about dads’ roles. There were intriguing differences between the expectant moms and dads. First, expectant dads watched more television than expectant moms (34.39 hours per week for dads vs. 28.51 hours per week for moms). Second, expectant fathers also thought that television was more reflective of real life than expectant moms thought. Given that expectant dads not only watched more TV and also thought that TV was more realistic, we hypothesized that these men would be more influenced by watching TV dads than the expectant mothers.

Indeed, we found that although exposure to television dads didn’t seem to matter for the expectant mothers’ beliefs about fathers’ roles, expectant dads who watched a lot of TV fathers said they believed that dads weren’t important for children. These results held up when we considered whether the expectant parents believed television reflected real life. Expectant dads who said that television wasn’t very realistic and also watched a lot of TV featuring fathers believed that dads weren’t important to their children.

Taken together, our results reveal that first-time dads may be more vulnerable to media messages than first-time moms. Women are usually given more resources and support as new mothers than men as new fathers, so we suspect that expectant dads are learning more about fatherhood from sources such as television. And when the messages about fatherhood from television are that dads are dolts or even dangerous, this could be harmful for real-life dads as they figure out their new roles as fathers.

To read the full study, click here.

patty kuoDr. Patty Kuo has a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Michigan and will be a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Notre Dame starting this summer. Her research focuses on family functioning, fathering, and child development. Read more about Dr. Kuo’s work here.

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