Examining the Culture of Fatherhood in American Children's Literature: Presence, Interactions, and Nurturing Behaviors of Fathers in Caldecott Award Winning Picture Books (1938-2002)

By Flannery, Suzanne M. | Fathering, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Examining the Culture of Fatherhood in American Children's Literature: Presence, Interactions, and Nurturing Behaviors of Fathers in Caldecott Award Winning Picture Books (1938-2002)


Flannery, Suzanne M., Fathering


This research examines the cultural scenarios of American fatherhood by measuring father presence and interactions with children in Caldecott award winning picture books from 1938 to 2002. Comparisons of fathers and mothers are measured and examined for changes over time. Fathers are found to be present in relatively the same number of books as mothers yet are depicted as engaging in significantly fewer interactions with children than mothers. The 1960s were found to be a period of time in which changes occurred in the presence of fathers in the books, supporting prior research which posits a "shifting" pattern in fatherhood imagery. This study also finds concurrence with a "fluctuating" pattern of changes in the culture of fatherhood in media with regard to father interactions. Further, findings point to the possibility of a "new father" image occurring during the 1980s.

Keywords: fatherhood, culture of fatherhood, American culture, children's literature, children's culture

The purpose of this research is to examine the social constructions of fatherhood in contemporary American culture via a content analysis of children's literature. Specifically, the aim of this project is to contribute to the continuing dialogue in the "changing culture of fatherhood" line of inquiry. The culture of fatherhood refers to the "norms, values, beliefs, and expressive symbols pertaining to fatherhood" (LaRossa et al., 2000, p. 375). Family scholars interested in these constructs have sought to discover and document how fathers are portrayed in a variety of popular American media such as single-panel cartoons (Day & Mackey, 1986; LaRossa, Gordon, Wilson, Bairan, & Jaret, 1991, LaRossa, Jaret, Gadgil, & Wynn, 2000), magazine articles (Atkinson & Blackwelder, 1993), and television commercials (Coltrane & Allen 1994) via the methods of content analysis. The images of fathers in culture are of particular interest because they may "affect the social reality of fatherhood" (LaRossa et al., 2000) and possibly influence the expectations that participants in culture have for the role of a father.

LaRossa et al. (2000) explain that, taken together, the research involved in this line of inquiry supported that there has been a change in the culture of fatherhood but did not agree on how much of a change had occurred, when the change occurred, or how the change could be characterized in terms of linear shifts or oscillating fluctuations. A component of the complexity of this dialogue is due to the use of diverse media, differing points in time for analyses, contrasting approaches to the problem, and the use of a range of variables related to the (changing) roles of fathers. Table 1 provides a brief sketch of the major studies involved in examining the changing culture of fatherhood.

Of particular interest to social scientists are the intersections of cultural and possibly symbolic phenomena with historical events and patterns. For example, Atkinson and Blackwelder (1993) compare the cultural definition of fathering evidenced in magazine articles from 1900 to 1989 with fertility rates and married women's labor-force participation, finding an association between higher fertility rates and cultural definitions of fathers as providers.

Current culture-of-fatherhood researchers have provided clear rationales for why comics, magazine articles, and television commercials are meaningful sources of information about fathers in mainstream American culture. These media are easily accessible to a broad range of readers/consumers and are tools of communication driven by a sense of shared understandings and motivations to connect the reader to the message. The artifacts that have been examined are possible sources of role identity information for male parents and may provide a model of fathering behaviors that people may assume is the norm. These studies have taken an anthropological and historical approach and thus have called for further examination of a broader range of artifacts to build greater understanding of fathers in culture. …

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