It goes without saying that fathers are important figures in children’s lives and can act as significant role models. But can sons also be role models for their fathers?
For children are active agents in the socialisation process in terms of responding to the conditions of their upbringing, but also in acting upon them (Brannen et al 2000).
Sons aged 5 to 17 engage in a wide range of activities with their fathers, both individually and also as a family. Research shows that father-son activities are typically centred around doing ‘boys things’, like watching sports on TV and playing football (Brannen et al 2012).
But wanting to spend more time with their dads is a major theme in interviews we have conducted with boys about their fathers. It seems that one of the major constraints upon fatherhood is employment (Mooney el 2013). This is a matter which younger boys (as opposed to the teenagers) are concerned about. While some sons (with fathers in middle class high paid jobs) aspire to jobs like those of their fathers, primarily to achieve a similar life style, with high pay, more often they hold no such ambitions for themselves, mentioning things that they dislike about their dads’ jobs, in particular the long hours, the stress, the travel, the administration, and ‘too many meetings’.
Children today are quick to welcome the monetary fruits that accrue from their parents’ employment, in particular its consumption benefits. Yet the younger boys are also critical of the toll work takes on their fathers and in particular the time dads spend away from them.
Younger boys describe dads coming home after a long day as ‘grouchy’ and too tired to play with them. Several of the sons of Polish migrants in my research told us they felt their dads worked too much and too hard, and that as a result they, the sons, were missing out. Thirteen year old Lucjan, for example, thought his dad, a construction worker, must work hard in his job because ‘when he gets back he has a shower and goes to bed’. Feliks, aged ten, similarly talked of his dad going to bed before him.
Older boys, on the other hand, were more accepting. Seventeen year old Steve’s dad travelled extensively in his job as a manager in a large business. When he was growing up, Steve said he simply took it for granted that `dad’s not there, and your mum is, to support you.’ Now, even when his dad was not away and worked at home, he shut himself up in his office. Nevertheless Steve considered that they have enough ‘father-son time’.
Rory, aged eight, the son of a banker, was very ‘annoyed’ about his dad having to stay late at work for meetings and returned to the subject several times in his interview, expressing real concern for his father’s welfare.
Thus generational transmission in the form of role models is not all one way. Children can offer positive role models for their fathers through their expressed concern for their parents’ welfare.
To strengthen the role models that men can offer the next generation requires taking notice of what children have to say. That these matters are cause for public concern is suggested by the fact that children are concerned about their parents.
This will require better joined up thinking between policies for children and those for adults. In terms of parents, public and workplace policies need strengthening rather than weakening, in particular the greater regulation of employment conditions, including working hours and time flexibility, in order to accommodate fathers as well as mothers.
Julia Brannen, Valerie Wigfall and Ann Mooney (2012) Sons’ Perspectives on Time with Dads. Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung Heft 1-2012, S. 25-41
Ann Mooney Julia Brannen, Valerie Wigfall a & Violetta Parutis (2013) The impact of employment on fatherhood across family generations
in white British, Polish and Irish origin families Community, Work & Family 1-18, iFirst Article
Brannen, J, Heptinstall, E and Bhopal, K (2000) Connecting Children: Care and
Family Life in Later Childhood, London: Falmer
Professor Julia Brannen is Professor of Sociology of the Family. She has an international reputation for her work on family life, work-life issues, intergenerational relations and for her expertise in mixed methods, biographical approaches and cross national research.