College Student Perceptions of the Content of Father Stereotypes

Article excerpt

This study used a three-step procedure to examine 663 Midwestern university students' perceptions of the content of social stereotypes related to seven types of fathers. Married and adoptive fathers were the most positively stereotyped groups, and divorced residential fathers were also viewed quite positively. There were relatively neutral views of stepfathers and gay fathers, whereas divorced nonresidential and never-married fathers were the most negatively stereotyped groups. Our results empirically supported the notion that younger adults' stereotypes of fathers depend on the father's marital status, parental status, and sexual orientation.

Key Words: family structure, fathers, stereotypes.

Stereotypes are widely held beliefs about the attributes of individuals or groups (Ashmore & Del Boca, 1981), which may be somewhat accurate, but might also be based on false or exaggerated information (Leyens, Yzerbyt, & Schadron, 1994). Stereotypes are helpful because they streamline thought processes, but they can also further negative or inaccurate assumptions about stereotyped groups if they function as preconceived conclusions or rigid judgments about people (Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994). When people are interacted with as if they possessed the stereotyped attributes whether they do or do not, misunderstandings and discrimination are likely to occur.

Individuals are stereotyped on the basis of characteristics such as race, age, physical attractiveness, gender, social class, marital status, and parental status. Members of first-marriage, nuclear families, for example, are viewed more favorably than are divorced, remarried, and never-married family members (Ganong, Coleman, & Mapes, 1990), stepparents are viewed more negatively than parents (Ganong & Coleman, 2004), and mothers are generally viewed more favorably than fathers (Prentice & Carranza, 2002).

Fathers have historically been stereotyped as teachers, moral overseers, disciplinarians, and breadwinners (Demos, 1982), but recently active parenting characteristics such as providing physical and emotional care for children have been incorporated into existing stereotypes about fathers (Marsiglio, 1995). Fathers have been slow in responding to changing notions of fatherhood (Coltrane, 2004), however, and mothers continue to shoulder most family responsibilities (Cunningham, 2002). The distinction between the culture and the conduct of fatherhood (LaRossa, 1997) may in part result from the continued expectation that fathers, and more broadly men, should primarily be breadwinners. Judgments made about fathers still tend to be based primarily on their ability to provide for their families, and fathers who do not fulfill the breadwinning stereotype are negatively perceived (Riggs, 1997). Although researchers have identified general stereotypes about different types of fathers, less is known about the content of these stereotypes.

THE CONTENT OF FATHER STEREOTYPES

Although Ganong and Coleman (1995) found that motherhood was viewed much more positively within the context of the traditional nuclear family than within other contexts, there has not been a comparable study of the content of father stereotypes. We do not know whether fathers in nuclear families are seen in the same "lens of rosy sentiment" as were mothers in nuclear families (p. 510).

There are several reasons why it is important to know the content of stereotypes about fathers, the most important being that stereotypes influence behavior. Stereotyping theorists have found that violating stereotypes can cause negative sanctions (Leyens et al., 1994). Fathers who are interested in children and who are not career focused, behaviors inconsistent with masculine stereotypes, have been perceived as insecure and weak (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Thus, if the cultural stereotype of fathers is primarily that of breadwinner, then fathers may feel justified being uninvolved with their families as long as they are good financial providers. …