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Ideas About Fathering

Our Thinking About this Site
Metaphors About Fathering
Generative Fathering Framework
Suggestions for Professional Use
Generative Fathering Defined

Our Thinking About This Site

About Fathers

We believe that many fathers are pioneers in their efforts to care for their children today; they are blazing trails and exploring unmapped territory. We believe that most fathers want to do good fathering but that they often face significant barriers to achieving that goal. Our focus is on good fathering, not good fathers. We assume that most fathers want to improve and that all fathers make mistakes.

About Our Learning Philosophy

We think that stories joined with ideas provide a helpful way to promote learning and change. We believe that learning and change come when a combination of cognitive, affective, behavioral, and ethical processes are influenced through stories, ideas, and questions. We believe that stories are particularly useful in teaching fathers because fathers are not told to change in a particular way but are encouraged to find their own meanings and avenues of change through stories. Fathers know their children and themselves best, and they bring unique strengths to caring for the next generation. That's why you won't see a lot of "tried-and-true" specific tips or "how-to lists" for fathers here at FatherWork. There are many good books, programs, and other resources that can provide these kinds of information. Our emphasis, however, will be on providing interesting, informative, and inspiring stories and experiences to help fathers find their own unique and creative ways to meet the needs of the next generation.

About This Web Site's Goal

In short, we believe that if this web site is effective, fathers will want to spend more time with their children and will want to be more involved in their children's lives. We hope fathers will not spend an inordinate amount of time on our home page. Rather, use this web site to get new ideas and strengthen your motivation to be a good father, then log off and spend time with your children. Here at FatherWork, we are committed to our families and to do our best to keep family a high priority. We hope to prompt fathers to make similar commitments to be better fathers.

About This Web Site's Limits

We realize that some of our beliefs and commitments may be different than yours. We believe that we have developed something useful and respectful, but we also feel certain limitations are necessary with what we want to do. Our purpose is to strengthen fathers and to help them become more aware of their children's needs. We do not want to promote arguing and criticizing of other fathers' choices. Thus, FatherWork is not a bulletin board (BBS) or an on-line chat forum. It is a resource to get new ideas on how to do the work of good fathering and a place to increase commitment to caring for the next generation.

Metaphors About Fathering

Fathering Infants

FatherWork with infants builds the foundation for a child's trust in the world. When a house has a firm foundation, it's stability is increased. In the same way, a child's future rests on a foundation of trust built over time. Fathers are crucial in building that trust as they make daily choices to care for their children by providing for their children's needs and showing their love and concern. When fathers can work together with mothers, children's foundations of trust are formed by sharing the exhausting work of child care and financially supporting the family. By pouring their lives into making their children feel safe and having their needs met, generative fathers lay the beginnings of a rich and secure life for their children. Your child's sense of trust will be solidly formed when you involve yourself from day one.

Fathering Toddlers and Preschoolers

FatherWork with toddlers and pre-schoolers calls fathers to create an atmosphere of affectionate attention for their child that is adaptive, yet continuous and consistent. A healthy toddler's inner world is filled with many conflicting feelings - independence and dependence, confidence and doubt, initiative and passivity, and self-awareness and confusion. Just as a seesaw with an adjustable fulcrum compensates for a stronger pull on one end, fathers can adapt their parenting position to compensate for the general shifting emphasis toward his child's independence. However, the position of his fulcrum of love and support may change day to day as the child moves back and forth between these conflicting feelings. Fathers need to respect and support their child's initiative, autonomy, and self-confidence, but at the same time recognize their child's dependence and need for guidance.

Fathering School-Age Children

FatherWork with school-age children requires an attentive heart that is willing to meet the many challenges young children face. Some of these challenges are similar to school playgrounds that are full of difficult stretches, slippery slides, exciting whirls, and many ups and downs. Just as children stretch their large motor capabilities as they strive to climb higher or swing harder on various playground equipment, fathers must stretch to meet the changing capabilities and needs of their child as they choose to respond attentively and appropriately to them. School-age children are caught up in a whirlwind of rapid developmental changes physically, socially, cognitively, and emotionally. Fathers who choose to provide gentle guidance, warm appreciation, and a patient heart will become a friend forever in the child's playground of life.

Fathering Teenagers

FatherWork can be especially challenging when it involves teenage children who are stretching their wings towards greater independence. During these years, generative fathers can be the wind beneath the wings of their adolescent children as they fly farther and farther from the nest exploring a world full of opportunities and dangers. As teenagers search for a stable identity and choose a personal value system, fathers may feel unnoticed and distant from their teenagers. But as fathers work to build a strong and trusting relationship through the early years and continue to tell their maturing youth they love them, their teenagers will sense that quiet wind lifting their youthful wings and appreciate its strength and guidance. Although fathers walk a step behind their teenages during these years, their children can still recognize their dads as one of the true heroes in their lives.

Fathering Adult Children and Grandchildren

FatherWork is a lifelong commitment. When children are young, fathers are a shortstop , a coach, and even a team player in their child's game of life. As the innings progress and the child matures into adulthood, this relationship is not dissolved. Generative fathers learn to play different positions in their child's life; they now become an outfielder. An outfielder is not always in the action of the game, but they play an integral part. A generative father still gets to view his child's life, even if he is waiting for a fly ball for part of the game. Successful fathering is like a baseball game; participation is necessary throughout the entire game. As a father, it is up to you to be there for your children even as they grow into adulthood. By letting them know you will be part of their team, you allow them to play their best while remaining part of their lives.

Fathering Special-Needs Children

FatherWork with special-needs children should and can be as wonderful and varied as special-needs kids themselves are. Fathers of special-needs children are ordinary men doing both ordinary and extraordinary things since parents of special-needs kids do the same things other parents do but usually have added burdens (and, often, added joys). Fatherwork with special-needs kids can be like the Special Olympics. Fathers can coach children to develop skills and confidence, provide opportunities for accomplishment, give encouragement and supportive cheering along the way, and present them with rewards for effort and accomplishment. Every special-needs child deserves a father that runs and jumps with her through the challenges of life, one that enthusiastically hugs him at the end of each little success, one that hangs medals on his neck with pride and love in his eyes, and one that, through his constant encouragement and love, places a continual stream of flowers in her hands. Your child (and all special-needs children) needs the coaching, cheering, encouraging, and assisting that you uniquely can give.

Fathering Non-Custodial Children

Just as a person listening to the radio must carefully tune into a station in order to understand the information, so must non-custodial fathers consistently be in tune with their children's lives. Even though thousands of miles can separate him from his children he can still tune his heart and mind toward them, by avoiding changing stations so as to avoid the pain of not being with his children on a daily basis. These fathers must make sure that they always have their radio turned on and tuned into their child's life. If they do, they can share in the beautiful moments of joy, as well as the heartache. However, if they are not tuned in now, they will realize that when they want to be heard and listened to, no one will be at the receiving end; rather they will only hear static.

Fathering Adopted Children

FatherWork extends itself beyond human bounds of creation and into the hearts and minds of children. Many families choose to graft branches into their existing family tree or may need to graft in order to have a family tree. As the new branch is grafted in, special care must be taken to ensure the new branch "takes root" within the family tree. It is essential that the nourishment that is provided from the trees deep roots is passed on through the newly forming network of internal connections, these are connections of love, understanding, and support. Fathers, you are a source of these essential elements for your child. You will find that as you give of yourself, the branches of your family tree will flourish and return to you the type of life giving love and support offered best by a family.

Fathering in Economic Hardship

FatherWork in economic hardship calls for creativity, sacrifice, and resourcefulness. Sometimes a father might feel like he is running the Boston Marathon as a three legged race. When he steps up to the starting line, his partner, financial stress, ties a rope around their legs. In the distance, this father can see the finish line that inspires him--caring for his children's needs. The gun goes off and everyone else seems to be sprinting by leaving him in the dust. As a father works to manage financial stress, he is able to move more quickly and can even lose this partner. It might take longer and have to be run (or even walked) in a different way, but the finish line can be met. His children's loving faces will cheer him on to cross the finish line and join them in celebration. Fathers then will receive the reward of knowing that his children have a chance in life because of his committed work. Hard work, simple acts of love, and sacrifice will show your children that you love them as you struggle to overcome economic hardship.

Fathering and Employment

FatherWork encompasses a man's stewardship to provide for and nurture his family. While a father's occupation may serve as a source of challenge and self-worth, the purpose of his employment must not be forgotten -- a father works to provide for his family. The purpose of a father's job is to ensure his family's survival and by so doing open the windows of opportunity for loving, nurturing relationships to flourish. Simply put, though a father's job may be a means of financial support, his career should always be his family, and often the balancing of time and resources between one's family and one's employment is a struggle. Much as a successful business company wisely manages its resources, so must a generative father wisely manage his time, energy, and commitment between his job and his family. Fathers, as you invest your time, energy, and love into building and strengthening your family you will find that being esteemed and "promoted" in the eyes of your children is far more rewarding than the fleeting glory and praise obtained by your labors in the workforce.

Relationship Work

FatherWork is important in creating bonds between fathers and their children. Much like two people rowing a canoe, fathers and their children must learn how to work together. At times, the father will have to paddle stronger or lighter to compensate for their child's paddling capacity, adjusting to their child's social, emotions, and physical abilities. Just as those traveling the water in a canoe must communicate with each other to accomplish their goal, fathers and children must communicate with each other to accomplish their goal, fathers and children must talk with one another in order for their relationship to take them across the waters of life. There are times along the waters of life when you will encounter rough waters, but as you work together you will pass them by. As you talk with your children and establish good relationships with them, together you will enjoy your canoe and the many places which it can take you.

Development Work

FatherWork involves adapting creatively to change in children, fathers, and the circumstances in which they live. Developing children need their fathers' care and fathers need to give that care for their own healthy development. But the universal constant of change, predictable or un-, in children, in adults, in circumstances, quickly outdates yesterday's caring response and demands new, adaptive, and creative responses to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Development work calls fathers to provide supportive conditions, resources, guidance, and love as children journey towards maturity. Generative fathers should be a treasured traveling companion for their children on this long and challenging trek, at times standing close together, working side-by-side, at other times observing and encouraging from a safe distance behind, but always a constant hand nearby to gently assist in holding the rudder when the course of life is uncertain, and an anchor of security in a sheltered bay when children need a rest from the strong winds and high waves of change.

Ethical Work

FatherWork involves working to secure children's survival and development. Like the constant beating of the heart, a generative father's steady, committed ethical work makes a child's abundant life possible and is the heartbeat of a healthy father-child relationship. Although these ethical choices can sometimes be uncomfortable, difficult, or even require sacrifice, generative fathers make them because they believe it will benefit their children. This undying commitment to meeting children's needs provides the strength necessary to continue the beat of fatherwork every day. With fathers' commitments to meeting children's needs followed by choices that reflect these commitments, the future of all children will be enhanced. As you choose to meet your child's needs, you will feel the pulse of that commitment and see the rich life that is now possible because of your committed work to care for your child.

Fathering and Faith

FatherWork involves turning one's heart to a child in faith, hope and charity by acting in ways that bless and keep (Malachi 4:5,6). Faithful, generative fathering consists of a father exercising faith in God and faith in his child(ren), hoping for all that is good for children and working to make those hopes a reality and showing pure love for children by giving them many good gifts (Matthew7:11). A father of Faith recognizes that "his" children are entrusted to him by God and therefore he views his stewardship over them as significant and sacred. A father who consecrates and dedicates his life to his children will find a profound joy. Through continual love and service, wise direction, and patiently bearing with children through life's challenges, a father can turn his children's hearts to their Father in Heaven and be God's instrument in bringing them an abundant life blessed with peace.

The Essence of Fathering

FatherWork involves continually and adaptively being for one's child; the essence of fatherwork is constant, active responsiveness. Thus, generative fathering, like a great river, is both constant and moving. Children need to be able to flow along the river of growth that generative fathering provides. Children need the stability of the constant presence of a father in their lives combined with flexibility to meet children's changing needs. As a great river brings travelers along their journey, generative fathering provides opportunities for meaningful growth and assists a child move through life with confidence and joy; as a river provides sustenance on the journey, generative fathering provides a child sustenance and lifegiving love; as a river provides fun, excitement, and adventure, generative fathering nourishes a child through fun, humor, and adventure; as river-goers get on and off the river but always retain, in memory, the feel of quiet movement and exciting rapids, children of generative fathers depend on their fathers to both be a constant presence and yet to allow them to decide how often they avail themselves of their father's influence; as great rivers begin in mountains and end in oceans, generative fathering begins in the peaks of high principles and flows down until its journey is over; as great rivers are fed by smaller streams, generative fathering is nourished by other's efforts and encouragement. You, as a father, are called to be for your child what they most need for you to be as they move through a challenging and sometimes dangerous life.

Fathering and Athletic & Physical Development

FatherWork is being involved in the lives of one's children. As a father becomes involved in the physical or athletic development of his children he assumes the position of coach, and a good coach is much like a good father. A coach commits himself to spending many long hours of practice with his players in preparation for the big game, drills are used to sharpen skills, strengths and weaknesses are identified, special plays are formulated to build upon the strengths of the individual players, and words of encouragement are exclaimed as the players struggle to refine the old and learn the new. Generative fathers recognize this time with their children to be an opportunity to connect, a time to influence and be influenced by the next generation. Fathers, your team has the biggest game of all to play, the game of life, and they need your help to be ready.

Fathering and Moral Development

FatherWork in the area of moral development must be an effort of endless devotion. A wise shepherd knows that he cannot force his prized sheep to always remain on the safe path, instead, he strives to guide them along the path with his staff of kindness. The shepherd's first concern is for his sheep, they are his work and his love. His fulfillment comes through guiding them to the meadows and streams which will bring them the richest joy. A generative father feels the trust of his child and feels the profound responsibility to teach, guide, and set an example to the best of his ability. Like the wise shepherd, a generative father's concern and guidance are constant for both sheep who need little correction and for those who frequently get lost. Frustration comes and goes but hope remains constant. No father knows where all the dangers are or where the wolves lie in wait but as you strive to guide your children with a staff of kindness and a loving example, you WILL bless their lives and find with them the joy of peaceful pastures.

Learning and Application Activities

Please complete one of the following:

  • Create your own fathering metaphor, and explain its significance. Send us your metaphor via email.
  • Share one or two of the metaphors in this module with a creative friend or co-worker who enjoys "playing" with words and images. Discuss the principles it teaches and how it can be used to encourage generative fathering. Write a brief (about one page) "report" about what you learned from this experience to us via email.
  • Review in your mind the professional literature in your field about fathering. What are some of the metaphors used or implied in that literature to describe fathering? Send a brief (about one page) "report" about what you learned from this review to us via email.

A Conceptual Ethic of Fathering as Generative Work


Although the area of fathering has received increasing scholarly attention in recent years, as yet, not a great many attempts at systematic theory-building have been done in this area. Concepts have been proposed and empirical relationships between variables have been explored, but it has only been fairly recently that scholars are beginning to present more formally articulated conceptual frameworks on fathering. A couple of recent examples of more systematic frameworks include the model on responsible fathering done by Doherty, Kouneski, and Erickson (1996) and the conceptual ethic of generative fathering proposed by Dollahite, Hawkins, and Brotherson (1997). This paper will briefly present the major ideas which serve as context and foundation for the framework and provide a brief overview of the most recent version of the concepts in the model which include several significant revisions from the published version. This framework is presented in the interest of strengthening the linkages between theory, research, and practice on fathering in the family sciences (Lavee & Dollahite, 1991).

Major Ideas in the Conceptual Ethic of Generative Fathering

Dollahite, Hakwins, and Brotherson (1997) proposed a conceptual ethic of fathering as "generative work" which draws from the developmental conceptual work of Erik Erikson (1950, 1982) and John Snarey (1993). Their conceptual ethic was presented as an example of a non-deficit perspective of fathering rooted in the proposed ethical obligation for fathers to meet the needs of the next generation. Erikson (1950, 1982) coined the term generativity to refer to adults caring for and contributing to the next generation. He saw generativity as a developmental crisis or imperative in which adults try to attain a favorable balance of creativity, productivity, and procreation over stagnation and self-absorption (Snarey, 1997). Snarey (1993) found strong empirical evidence to support the deep and abiding value of fathers being generative with their children and grandchildren.

A Generative Conceptual Ethic

(a) fathers are under the obligations of an ethical call from their children and their communities to conduct the multidimensional work of caring for the next generation in ways which attend to the fundamental conditions and constraints of children's lives within families, (b) generational ethics, rather than adult relational ethics should be preeminent when considering the needs of children, (c) fathers have contextual agency in their relationships with the next generation, (d) a responsibilities-based and capabilities-based perspective which asserts that fathers should and can connect with and care for their children in meaningful ways (Dollahite, et al., 1997, p. 19).

Beyond Deficit Perspectives

Another fundamental idea of generative fathering is that it moves beyond what Hawkins and Dollahite (1997) called a "deficit paradigm" of fathers and fatherhood in general and, in particular, the "role-inadequacy perspective" (or RIP) which Aemphasizes fathers' lack of adaptation to sociohistorical change, their lack of involvement in caring for children, and their lack of interest in changing the status quo" (p. 15). While acknowledging that far too much fathering is deficient or harmful, Hawkins and Dollahite (1997) critique the role-inadequacy perspective because (a) it overemphasizes fathers' inadequacies and ignores their strengths, (b) it is too focused on rescripting social roles rather than facilitating personal transformation and is therefore nondevelopmental, (c) it ignores that most fathers have strong desires and motivations to both be a good father and to improve their fathering, (d) it creates barriers to change by maintaining low expectations for fathers and unwittingly supports maternal gatekeeping, and (e) it restricts the conceptualization of care for children by not challenging an assumption implicitly held by many that the parenting practices typically associated with mothering fully meet the needs of children. Hawkins and Dollahite (1997) call for scholars and practitioners to create "new frameworks that simultaneously emphasize the desires men have to do the work of good fathering, the capabilities they bring to their parenting, and the ethical responsibilities they must assume to care for the next generation" (p. 16).

Needs of the Next Generation

The generative framework emphasizes meeting children's deep and abiding, though varied and changing, needs, rather than responding to changing societal expectations. They believe that emphasizing working to meet children's needs "places fathering on the firm foundation of the needs of the next generation rather than on the shifting sands of societal role expectations, the fragile fault line of adult gender relations, or the engulfing quagmire of expressive individualism" (p. 34).

Generative Work

The conceptual ethic of generative fathering conceptualizes fathering as generative work, rather than as a social role embedded in a changing sociohistorical context and argues that the metaphor of work rather than the image of social role has some conceptual and practical advantages including that (a) it reconnects the concepts of family and labor for fathers as well as for mothers, (b) it places fathering in a familiar context for men, and (c) it evokes more helpful, transformative images. Dollahite et al., (1997) present four areas of work that fathers can and should be involved in with the next generation, ethical work, development work, relationship work, and stewardship work. Fatherwork is a term Dollahite et al. (1997) used to describe the conduct of generative fathering but the term is also used as a general term to refer to fathering. They use the terms "fatherwork" and "generative fathering" interchangeably.
In summary, some of the major assumptions of the perspective include:

1. Fathers have the ability and the responsibility to choose to be involved and responsible fathers and most fathers have strong desires to be good fathers.

2. Good fathering emphasizes meeting the needs of the next generation more than responding to societal expectations or changing social roles.

3. Good fathering is hard work and, from the perspective of the father, the mother of his children, his children, and their community, it is the most important kind of work men do.

4. Fathers' needs and children's needs often correspond and generative fathering is consistent with healthy mens' development.

5. The needs of the next generation are grounded in the challenges and opportunities of the human and family conditions.

6. Generative fathering is an ethical response to the needs of the next generation.

7. Men bring varied abilities, interests, and strengths to their fathering and can and do grow into their fathering.

8. Fathering (as does all human activity) takes place in a context of constraints and challenges.

9. Most of the needs of the next generation can be met by either mothers or fathers or by mothers and fathers together, yet some needs may be met only by mothers or only by fathers.

(Adapted from Dollahite, Morris, & Hawkins, 1997)

Support for Empirical and Practical Applications of Generative Framework

Two indications of the value of family conceptual frameworks are (a) their ability to generate meaningful family research and (b) the extent to which they can be utilized in forming helpful applications for professionals working with families. This section briefly describes some research and applications flowing from a generative perspective.

Empirical Support for Generative Framework

Some initial empirical research using narrative methods has provided some support for the major ideas of the conceptual ethic of fathering as generative work. Borrows (1996) used the framework as the conceptual basis for a qualitative, narrative study of 14 Canadian Chippewa (Ojibway) fathers who had alcoholic fathers and were transitional characters, or generational buffers, in their own fathering. She found support for the major concepts for that sample in that context and also suggested how the framework could be adapted to be used with Native North American fathers. Brotherson (1995) and Brotherson & Dollahite (1997) used a narrative approach to explore the validity of the framework with 16 Latter-day Saint (Mormon) fathers of special needs children and found support for its use with fathers who have children with disabilities and also suggested some refinements of concepts from this research. Ongoing research at BYU is exploring the relationship between religious belief and practice and generative fathering in fathers of various faiths with children with special needs. While We believe that narrative methods may be most effective in exploring generative fathering, we have begun developing a survey instrument that can be used as well.

Educational and Clinical Applications of the Generative Framework

It is also hoped that the conceptual ethic of fathering as generative work will be useful in educational and clinical settings with fathers. Palm (1997) incorporated the four concepts of generative fathering work into a framework of goals for parent and family education with fathers. Dollahite, Hawkins & Brotherson (1996) demonstrated how the framework could be used in family life education using a narrative approach to illustrate concepts. Dollahite, Morris, and Hawkins (1997) proposed various activities and questions for college and university educators to use to incorporate concepts of generative fathering into courses. Dollahite, Hawkins, and Associates (1997) have used the framework as the basis for a narrative-oriented web site family life education program for the past year. Informal written feedback from users of the site and some initial quantitative findings from module evaluation surveys suggest that users find the ideas and stories helpful. Dienhart & Dollahite (1997) have suggested that the conceptual ethic of fathering as generative work has important implications for therapeutic work with fathers and they present an approach to therapy which combines the ideas of generative fathering with narrative therapy to form what they call Agenerative narrative therapy." Dollahite, Slife, and Hawkins (in press) have used the major concepts of a generative approach to develop the concepts of "family generativity" and an approach to intergenerational clinical work with families called "generative counseling."

In the original articulation of the framework, Dollahite et al., (1997) suggested that the conceptual ethic needed ongoing development and mentioned that additional areas of work beyond the four first presented would likely be proposed. They also mentioned the need to revise and refine the ideas in the framework. The rest of the paper illustrates a number of conceptual revisions, refinements, and additions. Rather than attempting to discuss the specifics of the original model as well as the revisions, refinements, and additions, this paper will simply discuss the framework as it is now constituted.

Presentation of Conceptual Ethic of Fathering as Generative Work

Figure 1 includes the full model but presents the ideas in a fairly linear fashion. The ideas are carefully related to one another and build on each other, and are organized in a way as to emphasize those relationships. Careful exploration of Figure 1 can allow the reader to have a snapshot of the major ideas and can be helpful for both scholars interested in studying generative fathering and practitioners interested in applying the ethic of generative fathering in their teaching and therapy. We believe much can be gained from considering the conceptual ethic is this way.

For example, in each of the seven pairs of "capabilities and responsibilities" the first concept (e.g., commit, consecrate, care, cooperate, confirm, commune, consult) has to do with meeting the child where she/he is at or connecting with them, while the second concept in each pair (e.g., continue, create, change, challenge, counsel, comfort, contribute) deals more with extending one's self or one's child or challenging. (The capabilities and responsibilities of generative fathering all start with the same letter to emphasize their centrality and as a pneumonic device to aid practitioners and family members.) Both connecting and challenging are thus proposed as important activities for each area of work. Some fathers are better at connecting and others at challenging, but the conceptual ethic suggests that both are important and futher suggests that in most cases it is better to connect and then to challenge. Traditional gender roles could be framed in the following way: women are to connect (be affiliative with) with their children (nurture, care, support, etc.) and men are to challenge (be instrumental with) their children (push, encourage, test, etc.). The conceptual ethic of fathering as generative work presents both ways of relating to children as important for fathers to engage in.

However, this is only one way to see the ideas and there are some advantages to other types of models. Thus, Figure 2 is also included to provide a different way of seeing the relationship of the ideas. Figure 2 illustrates that all types of work are happening at all times and the centrality of ethical work. In fact, without a commitment for continued involvement in the child's life not much of the other types of work would get done. For those who enjoy metaphorical visual imagery, the honey-comb shape of Figure 2 can also allude to the idea that fathering is "sweet work" and is centered in the home (alas, all metaphors have limitations so we won't stretch connotations of the honey comb model much further since then you get a male deficit model with the queen bee, the female worker bees, and the male drones--not at all consistent with the idea of hard-working, involved, responsible fathers!).

The framework is based on the idea that the human context creates needs in the next generation that fathers have the ethical responsibility and capability to meet and that both fathers and children both benefit and grow from this work. Thus, there are four types of linked concepts presented in the conceptual ethic found in the four columns headings (a) challenges of the human condition, (b) attendant needs of the next generation, (c) types of generative work--fathers' capabilities and responsibilities, and (d) desired results of generative fathering for fathers and children.

All of the human challenges, attendant needs, types of generative work, and desired results of generative work are present at all stages of the life cycle. (The model does include some broad developmental ages but by no means is the model simply an age-oriented stage model.) Thus, all of these issues are always present but it is believed that different challenges, needs, and types of work take center stage at different times in the child's and father's development. And, the type of dependency, scarcity, change, stress, perplexity, isolation, and obligation people experience changes across time and differs across contexts. Likewise, the nature and intensity of human needs varies over time and across time, and, because a need is met or a challenge overcome at one point in time does not mean it ceases to be an issue or potential issue. Our basic human challenges and needs seem to be always with us to some extent or at least can quickly come up again. And, of course, because of differing temperament, life situations, experiences, parenting styles, and decisions made, some face extreme challenges and/or have extremely strong needs in comparison to others. Thus, although the framework assumes that all people experience these challenges and have these needs, there is great variation in the mix of challenges and needs. Generative fathering is defined as working to meet the needs of the next generation and those needs are both universal in the aggregate and also the mix of needs is highly personalized thus, generative fathering must be tailored to situations, contexts, developmental stages, persons, types of interests and abililities of father and child and many other factors. The concepts in the model are intended to be broad and abstract enough to include all these diversities.

This framework should be thought of as a tightly connected foundation for generative fathering and is therefore best viewed from above as readers would with the model on the desk (rather than as a linear, hierarchal model as readers would see by holding the framework in front of them in the air). There is no thought that these seven sets of concepts exhaust all the challenges, needs, types of generative work, capabilities, responsibilities, and desired results of good fathering for fathers and children that are important. However, it is believed that these seven are critical and together form a coherent set of ideas that suggest many important areas to attend to in research and practice with fathers. Thus the seven rows in the framework consist of a set of concepts which provide a Acenter stage" developmental model in which the order is partly temporal and partly ontological and are consistent with Erik Erikson's developmental model, though not simply derived from it.

Brief Articulation of Concepts in the Ethic Generative Fathering

1. The first challenge of the human condition is dependency which includes two dimensions: vulnerability and uncertainty. While always present as a challenge of the human condition, dependency and its attendant needs is center stage as a crucial developmental issue during infancy when Erikson's trust vs. mistrust crisis occurs. Of course, dependency also becomes an issue at times of crisis, loss, and pain throughout the life span. The attendant needs of the next generation arising from dependency include security and continuity. The type of generative work needed from fathers to meet these needs is called ethical work. Ethical work consists of the father's ability and responsibility to commit (to pledge to ensure the child's well-being) and to continue (to be an enduring presence in the child's life). The desired result of ethical work is involved fathers and secure children. Ethical work leading to involved fathers thus becomes the foundation and sine qua non of responsible fathering. Much research has found that frequently if a strong commitment to the child and early paternal involvement does not occur, fathers rarely sustain meaningful long-term involvement and support for the child (Doherty et al., 1996). Secure children are better prepared to deal successfully with the next challenge of the human condition--scarcity.

2. The second challenge of the human condition is scarcity which includes two dimensions: necessities and aspirations. Necessities include the material needs of life and aspirations include the desire for more personal achievement and the need to learn to set and accomplish goals. While always present as a challenge of the human condition, scarcity and its attendant needs is center stage as a crucial developmental issue during early childhood when Erikson's autonomy vs. shame/doubt crisis occurs. Of course, resources and opportunities are also critically important during adolescence, although at this stage the teen often is able to contribute resources through work and may now know better how to make opportunities happen. The attendant needs of the next generation arising from scarcity include resources and opportunities. The type of generative work needed from fathers to meet these needs is called stewardship work. Stewardship work consists of the father's ability and responsibility to consecrate (to dedicate material resources to the child) and to create (to provide possibilities for the child to achieve). The desired result of stewardship work is responsible fathers and confident children who assume they will continue to have sufficient resources to meet their needs and opportunities to achieve their aspirations. If fathers do not adequately provide for the needs and wants of their children over the life span, the result is often poverty and discouragement for the child. Secure and confident children are better prepared to deal successfully with the next challenge of the human condition--change.

3. The third challenge of the human condition is change which includes two dimensions: development (gradual normative change) and transformation (sudden and/or dramatic change). While always present as a challenge of the human condition, change and its attendant needs is center stage as a crucial developmental issue during the play age when Erikson's initiative vs. guilt crisis occurs and the child is forming basic beliefs about whether or not they have the ability to handle and initiate changes in their environment. Another critical time change becomes important is during adolescence. The attendant needs of the next generation arising from change include attention and accommodation. The type of generative work needed from fathers to meet these needs is called development work. Development work consists of the father's ability and responsibility to care (to respond to their child's needs and wants) and to change (to adapt in response to their child's needs). The desired result of development work is responsive fathers and purposeful children who believe they will be able to continue to receive attention and initiate desired changes in their world. Secure, confident, and purposeful children are better prepared to deal successfully with the next challenge of the human condition--stress.

4. The fourth challenge of the human condition is stress which includes two dimensions: tension and demands. While always present as a challenge of the human condition, stress and its attendant needs is center stage as a crucial developmental issue during school age when Erikson's industry vs. Inferiority crisis arises and the child is dealing with the tensions and demands of school, peer relations, and familial dynamics. The attendant needs of the next generation arising from stress include relaxation and capabilities. The type of generative work needed from fathers to meet these needs is called recreation work. Recreation work consists of the father's ability and responsibility to cooperate (to relax and play together on the child's level) and to challenge (to extend the child's skills and coping abilities). The desired result of recreation work is playful fathers and joyful children who enjoy life and know how to relieve stress through recreation, and who have been challenged to develop competencies that will help them face the demands of life. Secure, confident, purposeful, and joyful children are better prepared to deal successfully with the next challenge of the human condition--perplexity.

But first, a note on the term, "recreation work." Many may question the logic of the seeming oxymoron "recreation work." They may argue that working at play may not relieve stress and that, for many people, linking play with work so closely "takes the fun out of recreation." Those points are granted. However, in our framework, work does not have the connotations often associated with work (drudgery, oppression, boredom, etc.) but rather includes the sense of calling, purpose, sustained effort, and also an element of joy (Dollahite, et al., 1997). And meaningful recreation (rejuvenation, renewal, and relaxation) is not always or necessarily "fun" in the sense of being light and amusing. Even so, sustaining appropriate, enjoyable, affordable, safe, and challenging recreational activities for a child (much less more than one and usually their peers at some point) over the life span is hard work. For many people, fun does not necessarily come naturally and easily and they have to work at taking time away from other types of work, or try to bring humor and play into their parenting. Many fathers (and mothers) need to work at winding down from their serious and stressful jobs to have fun with their children. Some fathers have to work at resisting the urge to over-correct while teaching a child a game or work at avoiding being sarcastic or otherwise insensitive in their humor. Others have to work at getting down at the child's level and playing what they want to play. Some must work to "lighten up" when they are trying to teach beliefs and behaviors very important to the father. Sustaining an appropriately playful relationship with certain aged children (teens) or with children with certain temperaments (e.g., sober, serious, sensitive) may require some real effort. Most people find that many kinds of child-desired vacations are as much work as fun for the parents, yet they are still recreational and important in building strong family ties. Many fathers find it helpful to combine fun with working around the house and yard with their children and so are doing recreation work. Also, another part of recreation work is playfully challenging one's child in ways that they will enjoy learning new competencies and it is often hard work to come up with activities that are age appropriate, fun but not "stupid" from an older child's perspective, challenging but not discouraging, and to avoid the bane of many father/child recreational/athletic activities--damaging competition (e.g., The Great Santini "playing" basketball with his son).

5. The fifth challenge of the human condition is perplexity which includes two dimensions: apprehension and confusion. While always present as a challenge of the human condition, perplexity and its attendant needs is center stage as a crucial developmental issue during adolescence when Erikson's identity vs. confusion crisis arises and teenagers are struggling with a variety of types of confusion (roles, relationships, directions, values, beliefs, boundaries, etc.). In fact, part of the reason there is such perplexity for adolescents is that this is a time when all of the human challenges and needs seem to intensify within the teen and there is great apprehension and confusion in making the transition/transformation from child to adult. The attendant needs of the next generation arising from perplexity include encouragement and guidance. The type of generative work needed from fathers to meet these needs is called spiritual work. Spiritual work consists of the father's ability and responsibility to confirm (to affirm his belief and confidence in the child) and to counsel (to guide, teach, advise, and inspire the child). The use of the term spiritual work here does not necessarily imply religious belief or practice, but does suggest a strong, deep nurturing and guiding connection between father and child in ways that the child can obtain some meaning and direction and come experience some degree of peace about their life and future. Nonetheless, religious beliefs and practices often can be helpful in facilitating generative spiritual work (Dollahite, et al., in press). The desired result of spiritual work is faithful fathers and peaceful children. Secure, confident, purposeful, joyful, and peaceful children are better prepared to deal successfully with the next challenge of the human condition--isolation.

6. The sixth challenge of the human condition is isolation which includes two dimensions: aloneness (social isolation--"I'm alone") and misunderstanding (emotional/intellectual isolation--"no one understands me"). While always present as a challenge of the human condition, isolation and its attendant needs is center stage as a crucial developmental issue during young adulthood when Erikson's intimacy vs. isolation crisis occurs and the young adult is making choices about long-term relationships. The attendant needs of the next generation arising from isolation include intimacy and empathy. The type of generative work needed from fathers to meet these needs is called relational work. Relational work consists of the father's ability and responsibility to commune (to share love, thoughts, and feelings with their child) and to comfort (to express empathy and understanding with the child). The desired result of relational work is loving fathers and caring children. Relationship work involves not only maintaining loving relationship with the child but also facilitating the child's relationships with other family and community members, especially the child's mother, siblings, and grandparents. Secure, confident, purposeful, joyful, peaceful, and caring children are usually better prepared to deal successfully with the next challenge of the human condition--obligation.

7. The seventh challenge of the human condition is obligation which includes two dimensions: complexities and burdens. While always present as a challenge of the human condition, obligation and its attendant needs play a minor role in childhood, emerges as a real issue in adolescence, plays a major role in young adulthood, and takes center stage as a crucial developmental issue during middle adulthood when Erikson's generativity vs. self-absorption crisis is a crucial developmental issue and people are faced with the complexities and burdens of adult responsibilities. This life span approach to fathering emphasizes the important work many fathers do to support and encourage their adult children in their own generative work. The attendant needs of the next generation arising from obligation include wisdom and support. The type of generative work needed from fathers to meet these needs is called mentoring work. Mentoring work consists of the fathers ability and responsibility to consult (to impart ideas and stories when asked) and to contribute (sustain and support generative work of one's children). The desired result of mentoring work is generative fathers and generative children.

Some Hoped-for Strengths of the Framework

Here we'll mention some of the aspects of the framework that we believe are strengths:

  • The framework is grounded in two bedrock concepts (challenges of the human condition, and the needs of the next generation) that hopefully give the model "real world application" and a sense of high ethical ideals.
  • The life span nature of the framework allows and encourages exploration of the different and important ways fathers can and do contribute to their children's well-being across decades and through changes in their needs and challenges.
  • The model attempts to balance attention to conceptual clarity with practical utility in the sense that it is hoped that both scholars and practitioners would derive some benefit from the framework.
  • The framework does integrate ideas from different perspectives and disciplines such as family relationships (relationship work), human development (development work), ethics (ethical work), resource management (stewardship work), religion (spiritual work), recreation management (recreation work), and career development (mentoring work).
  • The framework is hopeful and positive about fathers' abilities to help their children meet the challenges they will face and thus moves beyond deficit perspectives which suggest fathers are not very good, not much use, or in other ways mostly problematic.
  • The use of the concept of fathering as critical and meaningful work rather than the use of the nearly reified concept of fatherhood only as a changing social role that contemporary men do not enact very well has the potential to move scholars and practitioners beyond passive, deficit perspectives that tend to lead to empirical questions, educational programs, and clinical interventions that may not be respectful of most fathers actual motivations, capabilities, and experiences.
  • The framework includes two important concepts in the fathering literature: father involvement (though not limited to temporal involvement) and father responsibility, and it puts them into a broader context and provides additional important issues to attend to in relation to good fathering.
  • Because of the degree of specificity, coherence, and organization, the framework should be successful in encouraging both research and application.

Some Possible and Probable Weaknesses of the Framework

Here are some possible and some probable weakness or criticisms of the framework (along with some brief responses to them):

  • The framework has the weaknesses of seeming to be focused only on the father/child dyad. Although relationships with others in the child's life (mother, other family members, friends, and members of the child's community) are included within the relational work, the model does not yet give this the emphasis it deserves. Thus, although an ecological and familial context is assumed, these aspects have not yet been well articulated and thus the model is, at this point, probably best used in conjunction with other frameworks, such as the Doherty, et al. (1996) model of responsible fathering.
  • For some, the fact that the perspective draws from Erikson's "neo-Freudian" psycho-social theory would be a definite weakness. Freud was a teacher of Erikson and Freud is such a towering figure and Freudian thought has been out of favor for so long that some scholars and practitioners may dismiss the conceptual ethic outright or at least come with serious concerns about any set of ideas built on or growing out of Eriksonian thought and terminology. As Dollahite et al. (1997) show, the ethic of fathering as generative work does build on, revise, and explicitly move beyond some aspects of Erikson's theory (e.g., his emphasis on biological drives as the main source for development) and it clearly emphasizes and expands upon some of Erikson's ideas (e.g., our emphasis on the ethical and spiritual) and this latest version adds some new ideas Erikson did not address explicitly (e.g., recreation work, stewardship work, spiritual work). Nonetheless, the term generative is so clearly linked with Eriksonian theory that some scholars and practitioners may find it difficult to resonate with the framework because of their assumptions and biases about the problems with Erikson's ideas. Still, we obviously believe, like Snarey (1993), that Eriksonian theory has much to offer the study of fathering.

  • In a post-modern context, there is great emphasis given to the importance of an acknowledgment of values in our professional work, and the long unchallenged idea that objective reality exists and is the same for all people or groups or contexts is strongly doubted by most scholars. Nonetheless, the strong emphasis in this model on ethics and the inclusion of spiritual work in the generative perspective may be considered a weakness by some scholars and practitioners. The generative framework is avowedly, unabashedly, and enthusiastically a conceptual "ethic" or a coherent framework of what is considered to be "good fathering" and not simply an attempt to "model reality." We do believe that the ideas in the framework can be demonstrated to be more than simply an ethic and shown to be consistent with many people's experiences of being fathered (or not) and fathering. However, it likely remains the fact that for some scholars this type of framework would be considered to be suspect or problematic or unworthy of serious attention because it is not "true science" or "grounded in reality" or "empirically verified" or that it belongs in the realm of philosophy or religion or ethics but not in the social sciences.
  • On the other hand, scholars and practitioners with a post-modernist perspective may find the strong ethical orientation and the articulation of one set of ideas as inconsistent with notions of almost unbounded tolerance because of divergent cultures, contexts, perspectives, and values. The conceptual ethic of fathering as generative work does purport to suggest human challenges and human needs and broad categories of work that all fathers ought to do with specific desired outcomes. For some scholars, the willingness to articulate any type of conceptual framework that is intended to be applied beyond any one group or person or time or context is wrongheaded and problematic (at least) and is actually evidence of an attempt at academic colonialism or totalitarianism. Dollahite et al. (1997) responded to this potential problem by stating, "unfortunately, many strains of postmodern thought leave us with no sense of any real standards or values we can hold fathers up to. So we are left only with the vapid scholarly task of cataloging preferences and the solipsistic educational and intervention work of encouraging people to be true to themselves" (p. 34). Citing concern with increasingly confusing moral relativism in regard to standards of care for children manifest by too much child neglect, abuse, and abandonment, they stated that they believed that "the conceptual ethic of generative fathering moves beyond this relativism to a place where scholars and practitioners can talk about the ethical imperatives involved in caring for the next generation, not with rigid, dogmatic 'moralism' but with a clear call to generative responsibility . . ." (p. 34). The conceptual ethic may thus be justly accused of imposing ethics on fathers in the name of the needs of the next generation (as perceived by the authors of the ethic).


The conceptual ethic of generative fathering focuses on the ethical nature of fathering, the developmental nature of fathering, the generative nature of fathering, and the hard work of fathering. The framework is based on the assumption that most fathers have the desire to meet their children's needs, the ability to meet those needs, and the ethical responsibility to do so. The framework grounds itself in two fundamental realities of human and family life, the challenges of the human condition and the attendant needs of the next generation which arise from those challenges. Some research has begun to provide some empirical validation for the theory and there have been some attempts to construct educational and clinical applications consistent with the framework. We invite researchers and practitioners to derive benefit from the framework, re-work, refine, develop, and critique it. Most of all, we hope it helps us to help others to be responsible, generative fathers.

Suggestions for Professional Use


Part of our purpose in creating this web site is to make it useful for family professionals. The challenge to family professionals "is to guide men toward good fathering in diverse circumstances with a sense of hope, optimism, and even excitement " (Palm, 1997, p. 168). Family life educators, extension agents/specialists, social workers, clergy, and university professors have a moral obligation to the fathers they work with to "begin with a sincerely held respect for the people engaged in this sacred and most challenging endeavor" (Deinhart & Dollahite, 1997, p. 186).

Family Life Educators, Extension Agents/Specialist, and Social Workers

Family life educators, social workers, and extension agents/specialists might be interested in using any of the stories in publications or in presentations. These professionals might also conduct a series (lectures, publications, activities) on fathering. Finally, the questions that follow the stories at the end of each section could be used to start discussion in groups. (The sections about the four areas of work could be particularly useful for this group.) For more information on generative fathering in parent and family life education, please refer to Palm (1997). To use generative fathering in clinical work, see Deinhart & Dollahite (1997).


Clergy could find that these stories could be helpful in illustrating points in sermons. Church members might also enjoy reading these stories in newsletters. It might prompt members to give their own stories. In addition, stories could be used in pastoral counseling and in parenting workshops conducted by clergy. (The sections about faith and fathering, ethical work, and spiritual development might be helpful for clergy.

University Professors

An interesting project in class could have students access and analyze this home page. For students in parenting classes, you could consider having students identify different kinds of parenting approaches used in these stories or by using these stories as data for research projects. Students might also be asked to submit stories to the home page. Assignments could also be integrated with various parts of this home page like having a parenting teenagers assignment that draws on the stories from that section. (The sections on fathering across the lifecycle, in challenging circumstances, and our ideas could be well-suited for use at the university.) For other good ideas for using stories in teaching, refer to Dollahite, Hawkins, & Brotherson (1996) or Dollahite, Morris, & Hawkins (1997).

Additional Information

For additional information on how to promote better understanding, research , and application of generative fathering in family professions, refer to:

Hawkins, A. J., & Dollahite, D. C. (Eds.). (1997). Generative fathering: Beyond deficit perspectives. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Generative Fathering Defined

What is Generative Fathering?

Generative fathering is a commitment to caring for the next generation through working to meet children's needs. This definition draws on Erik Erikson's ideas of development. Erikson, a prominent scholar of human development at Harvard and UC-Berkeley, proposed that an important part of adult development is enlarging a sense of self to include the next generation (one's own children and other children), and committing to care for them--what Erikson called, "generativity." Generative fathering is a process of fathers turing their hearts to the children to bless the lives of children, their own lives, and their communities.Generative fathering is hard work that falls into seven categories:

Being generative is often a difficult task but one that brings much satisfaction to adults and necessary care for children. You can read more on this in our theory section.

Principles of The Generative Fathering Perspective

The generative fathering perspective invites scholars, practitioners, students and others to:

1. Assume that most fathers accept the obligation to meet the needs of the next generation;

2. Assume that good fathering is consistent with mens' healthy development;

3. Assume that most fathers want to provide resources and opportunities for their children;

4. Assume that most fathers love and care for their children deeply;

5. Assume that most men have the capabilities to care for children in meaningful ways;

6. Appreciate the varied capabilities that men bring to their fathering;

7. Recognize that manifestations of generative fathering vary across time and context;

8. Realize that fathering occurs in a context of constraints on fathers, mothers, and children;

9. Engage in respectful, accurate, and constructive discourse about fathers and fathering;

10. Identify the factors that lead to good fathering across culture and circumstance;

11. Work to improve cultural and institutional supports for good fathering;

12. Call forth and facilitate generative fathering from fathers;

13. Care for the next generation in your personal lives.